IN THE NOT-SO-DISTANT PAST, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld described the costs of war in Iraq as "not knowable." A few weeks ago White House spokesman Ari Fleischer agreed that "it is too soon to say with precision how much this war will cost." Earlier this month the president himself refused to discuss the costs of the war, while calling the benefits "immeasurable -- how do you measure the benefit of freedom in Iraq?" Nevertheless, yesterday -- just five days into a war whose length, shape and final outcome remain unknowable -- the administration managed to produce an admirably precise figure: $74.7 billion.
Two things are interesting about this number. One is the timing of its appearance. Why was this precise figure, unknowable last week, magically produced this week? Last week the House and the Senate were debating the latest tax cuts the administration has proposed; the House voted to lock them in, and the Senate is on the verge of doing so, both acting on a fictitious spending figure that took no account of the war. Now that key votes on the tax package are behind it, the administration apparently feels it is safe to start telling Congress and the American people what the real size of this year's budget may be. For there should be no misinterpretation: This "supplemental" package is not the same as the amendment the Senate passed last week (which could still be overturned) to limit the $726 billion tax cut by $100 billion to pay for the war. This $74.7 billion is additional spending, which the administration does not intend to offset through budget cuts, caps on the tax cuts or anything else. No one is being asked to tighten his belt to pay for this war: Instead the spending will enlarge the deficit for this fiscal year, next fiscal year and well into the future.
The second interesting thing about this number is its size. It seems that this money is meant to cover only the war's first 30 days, not subsequent fighting or occupation. It includes only $500 million for humanitarian aid and $1.7 billion to rebuild Iraq. These sound like high numbers, but they are far lower than what will be needed. At the same time, the $74.7 billion figure appears to include funding for other projects that are more distantly related to the war, such as assistance for Israel, Jordan, Egypt and Afghanistan, as well as $500 million for the FBI and extra funding for the Coast Guard. In other words, the administration -- under cover of warfare -- appears to be using this wartime "supplemental" to tack a few more big items onto this year's budget, which is already spiraling into deficit. This bodes ill not only for the size of the debt but also for the budget process itself. If Congress is to conduct a meaningful debate about government spending, all the real figures have to be on the table, at the time members vote on them.