By Jonathan Weisman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 27, 2006
The cost of the war in Iraq will reach $320 billion after the expected passage next month of an emergency spending bill currently before the Senate, and that total is likely to more than double before the war ends, the Congressional Research Service estimated this week.
The analysis, distributed to some members of Congress on Tuesday night, provides the most official cost estimate yet of a war whose price tag will rise by nearly 17 percent this year. Just last week, independent defense analysts looking only at Defense Department costs put the total at least $7 billion below the CRS figure.
Once the war spending bill is passed, military and diplomatic costs will have reached $101.8 billion this fiscal year, up from $87.3 billion in 2005, $77.3 billion in 2004 and $51 billion in 2003, the year of the invasion, congressional analysts said. Even if a gradual troop withdrawal begins this year, war costs in Iraq and Afghanistan are likely to rise by an additional $371 billion during the phaseout, the report said, citing a Congressional Budget Office study. When factoring in costs of the war in Afghanistan, the $811 billion total for both wars would have far exceeded the inflation-adjusted $549 billion cost of the Vietnam War.
"The costs are exceeding even the worst-case scenarios," said Rep. John M. Spratt Jr. (S.C.), the ranking Democrat on the House Budget Committee.
Such cost estimates may be producing sticker shock on Capitol Hill. This year, the wars will consume nearly as much money as the departments of Education, Justice and Homeland Security combined, a total that is more than a quarter of this year's projected budget deficit. Yesterday, as the Senate debated a $106.5 billion bill to fund the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and ongoing hurricane relief, 59 senators voted to divert $1.9 billion from President Bush's war-funding request to pay for new border patrol agents, aircraft and some fencing at border crossings widely used by illegal immigrants.
When some Democrats said the move would take money from needed combat funds, Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.), the bill's sponsor, called the criticism "pure poppycock."
In another challenge to Bush, the Senate moved, in a veto-proof 72 to 26 vote, to shelve an amendment that would have struck spending on all items -- from farm drought assistance to a $700 million measure to move a Mississippi railroad away from the Gulf Coast -- not requested by the administration. The White House has threatened to veto the bill if it much exceeds the $92.2 billion Bush requested in February.
Because of the controversy surrounding the railroad funding, the Senate held a separate vote, 49 to 48, to retain the funding, which critics have singled out as a non-emergency. But advocates of the project, including Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Thad Cochran and Sen. Trent Lott, both Mississippi Republicans, defended it as part of a vital economic development effort along the Gulf Coast.
"It's built on marshes and on sand," Lott said of the railroad, displaying on the Senate floor enlarged photos of the tracks, which run along the coastline. "It will not stand."
But for a bill devoted largely to funding the war, the cost of the Iraq conflict so far has played little part in a political debate focused mainly on energy prices, immigration and pork-barrel spending.
Defense specialist Amy Belasco, the CRS study's author, stressed that the price tag is only an estimate because the Defense Department has declined to break out the cost of Iraqi operations from the larger $435 billion cost of what the administration has labeled the global war on terrorism. That larger cost applies to military, diplomatic and foreign aid operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, enhanced security efforts begun after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and related medical costs of the Department of Veterans Affairs.
"Although DOD has a financial system that tracks funds for each operation once they are obligated -- as pay or contractual costs -- DOD has not sent Congress the semiannual reports with cumulative and current obligations for [Iraq] and [Afghanistan], or estimates for the next year, or for the next five years that are required by statute," the CRS noted.
The report goes on to outline a series of "key war cost questions" for Congress to pursue and "major unknowns" that CRS has not been able to answer: How much has Congress appropriated for each theater of war? How much has the Pentagon obligated for each mission per month? What will future costs be? How much will it cost to repair and replace equipment? And how can Congress receive accurate information on past and future troop levels?
Such questions are highly unusual for a congressional research agency report, congressional budget aides said yesterday, and they point to growing frustration in Congress with a Pentagon that has held war-cost information close to the vest.
Lt. Col. Brian Maka, a spokesman for the Defense Department's comptroller, said the Pentagon will study the report before commenting on it.
The report details how operations, maintenance and procurement costs have surged from $50 billion in 2004 to $88 billion this year, citing rising expenditures for body armor, oil and gasoline; equipment maintenance; and training and equipping Afghan and Iraqi security forces.
"These factors, however, are not enough to explain a 50-percent increase of over $20 billion in operating costs," the report states.
War-related investment costs have more than tripled since 2003, from $7 billion to $24 billion, as money has been spent on armored vehicles, radios, sensors and night-vision goggles, as well as on equipment for reorganized Army and Marine Corps units.
"These reasons are not sufficient, however, to explain the level of increases," the report states again.
Other analysts are also scratching their heads. Michael E. O'Hanlon, a defense budget expert at the Brookings Institution, suggested that the military may be slightly padding its request for fear that Congress will be less giving on future emergency spending bills.
"I don't think these guys would make things up, but there is an assumption in the military that these supplementals might dry up, and if there are things that might be considered even Iraq-related, they should get them funded right now," he said.
Of the total war spending, the CRS analysis found $4 billion that could not be tracked. It did identify $2.5 billion diverted from other spending authorizations in 2001 and 2002 to prepare for the invasion.
That discovery helped push the CRS cost estimate higher than estimates from independent budget analysts. The CRS total also includes expenditures on foreign aid and diplomacy not counted in the military cost tallies by groups such as the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments.