U.S. defense outlays keep growing and growing

How much is enough? And could the money be better spent on domestic programs?

Washington's congressional budget planners had a new, costly curve thrown at them two weeks ago when the Bush administration formally committed the United States to a long-term military presence in Iraq to protect the government in Baghdad from internal coup plots and foreign enemies. US Defense Secretary Robert Gates launched talks in Iraq last Wednesday.

Already there is speculation that it may involve 50,000 American troops in one or more permanent bases in Iraq.

If so, it would cost $7 billion to $10 billion a year, according to a "back of the envelope" calculation by Gordon Adams, a military expert and international relations professor at American University in Washington.

That's not an extraordinary amount when compared with total American defense spending of about $750 billion for fiscal year 2008 (which began Oct. 1), a sum calculated by Professor Adams. That larger dollar figure, however, exceeds the defense spending of all other nations in the world – combined.

For fiscal 2008, President Bush has asked for $196 billion for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan alone. Such outlays make it "much more difficult" to provide funds for programs aimed primarily at helping American civilians, says Stan Collender, a Washington budget expert with Corvis Communications.

Right now, many Washington budget-watchers see the bickering between a Democratic majority in Congress and a Republican White House over spending bills as more of a political squabble than a fight over the merits of the outlays. Democrats are trying to enlarge domestic programs, telling voters they have a heart. Republicans are attempting to prove they are fiscally responsible and properly tough. "It's macho politics," says Mr. Collender.

The latest tussle concerns a fiscal 2008 appropriations bill for three departments: Education, Labor, and Health and Human Services. The difference between Congress and the White House on this is $21 billion, figures the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP), a Washington think tank. That's about 5 percent of all domestic appropriations, 1.8 percent of all federal discretionary spending ($1.14 trillion, a sum that includes defense spending), and far less than 1 percent of the $2.9 trillion total budget proposed by Mr. Bush – an amount that includes spending on Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and unemployment insurance.

So far, Collender says, the White House shows no signs of willingness to compromise with the Democrats on the spending bill. Rather, it is signaling its intention to veto the measure.

In the first six years of the Bush presidency, when Republicans controlled Congress, the president didn't veto a single appropriations bill. Now he is wielding that constitutional weapon repeatedly. Collender, whose writings suggest a Democratic sympathy, comments: "To say he is being disingenuous is giving him too much credit."

Bush is blaming Congress for the budget impasse. "Americans could be forgiven for thinking that Santa will have slipped down their chimney on Christmas Eve before Congress finishes its work," he told the press last week.

Collender suspects that no complete budget deal for fiscal 2008 will be reached. So Congress will need to pass a "continuing resolution" for unresolved appropriations bills, using past spending levels as their base. Further, he forecasts that the Bush 2009 fiscal budget, due to be sent to Capitol Hill by Feb. 4, will be extremely tight. And in an election year, the highly partisan politics of the budget debate will be "that much more intense because every vote will be a potential campaign issue."

Perhaps half seriously, he suggests that Congress just pass a continuing resolution for fiscal year 2009 early next year "and get it over with."

There are other budget issues ahead that concern millions of taxpayers. For instance, a $51 billion patch for the alternative minimum tax has passed the House to relieve 25 million prosperous but middle-income Americans from an unwelcome hike in their income tax.

That House measure includes a boost in taxes on the rich to offset the revenue loss. The Senate, however, passed a similar patch Dec. 6, but without any provision for new revenues. The speculation in Washington is that the patch bill will eventually go to the White House without any offset, thereby adding to the federal deficit.

The $51 billion patch, complains Richard Kogan, a CBPP economist, is equivalent to the Bush tax breaks for millionaires.

Another spending issue is earmarks. These are provisions slipped into spending bills that politically benefit individual members of Congress, but often are seen as wasteful. Bush uses these as one reason for vetoing spending bills. But earmarks are down in number and cost by about one-third from fiscal 2007.

The elephant in the budget remains military spending. Adams sees its level today as unnecessarily high. It's the same after taking account of inflation as during the cold war. Yet, he holds, "The US has never been as secure as we are today. What is the existential threat to the US today?" Not the Soviet missile threat. China has only 26 intercontinental missiles. Iran doesn't threaten the existence of the US. The terrorist threat is greatly exaggerated, he says.

"Yet we are scared to death," he says. "Thank you, George Bush."

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