War cost estimate by Congress' office is called staggering

October 25, 2007|By McClatchy-Tribune

WASHINGTON -- The cost of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan could total $2.4 trillion in the next decade, according to a nonpartisan budget analysis issued yesterday that House Democrats characterized as "mind-boggling."

The White House was quick to dismiss the figures from the Congressional Budget Office.

"We are on an unsustainable fiscal path and something has to give," CBO Director Peter Orszag said in presenting the estimates to the House Budget Committee at the request of its chairman, Rep. John M. Spratt Jr., a South Carolina Democrat.

Spratt says he wants to highlight the cost of the wars, particularly the one in Iraq, so that the public and policymakers will understand the trade-offs.

"The $2.4 trillion estimate is half of what it would take to keep Social Security solvent for 75 years - people can relate to that," he said.

The budget office analysts looked at two possible war scenarios to calculate a cost beyond the $600 billion that has been spent, $450 billion of it in Iraq. Including requested appropriations for fiscal 2008, the total is about $800 billion.

One scenario involved a troop withdrawal from 200,000 in 2008 to 30,000 in 2010, remaining at that level through 2017. That would cost an additional $570 billion, Orszag said.

The other scenario calculated the cost of leaving 75,000 troops in the two countries from 2013 to 2017 at $859 billion over spending through 2008.

For the first time, CBO included interest in its calculations because the war has largely been paid for with federal borrowing.

Interest payments on spending so far would total $415 billion. Under the first scenario, there would be an added $175 billion in interest payments, and under the second scenario, $290 billion in debt service would be added.

Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, the ranking Republican on the committee, said the estimates fail to show that as a percentage of gross domestic product, the U.S. is better equipped to pay for these conflicts than previous wars.

Rep. Lloyd Doggett, a Texas Democrat, said the numbers were "mind-boggling" and referred to the war as the White House's "go-along misadventure."

The Bush administration has declined to make long-term projections because "the war is ever-changing" and costs are difficult to predict, said Sean Kevelighan, press secretary for the White House budget office.

"Congress got a predictable answer to its leading question, which was clearly intended to artificially inflate war costs [by] politicians in Washington trying to manage our military commanders," Kevelighan said.

"Budgets follow military decisions, not vice versa," he said.

Spratt said he's supported every supplemental budget request to ensure that troops in harm's way have what they need to succeed, but he thinks the White House has been dismissive about the costs of the war and he views it as his responsibility to get the truth out.

"That's important. That's not a bean keeper's job," said Spratt, who served in the Army and worked in the Department of Defense comptroller's office before being elected to Congress in 1982. "This is an important element of the total decision."

At yesterday's hearing, Spratt acknowledged that some might quibble with assumptions and methodology, "but no one can contest the enormous cost incurred so far in Iraq."

"By any yardstick, that's a staggering sum," he said.

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