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Iraq panel assails Bush use of 'emergency' war budgets

WASHINGTON -- In a little-noticed section of its report, the bipartisan Iraq Study Group lambasted the method the Bush Administration has used to pay for the Iraq war, saying its reliance on "emergency" budgeting procedures has circumvented congressional oversight and led to billions of taxpayer dollars spent on extras and pet projects not directly related to the war.

The White House early next year plans to send Congress its largest supplemental spending request for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan since the budgeting practice began in 2001. The total figure is still being worked out, but congressional officials have been told it could be as much as $160 billion -- the vast majority to be spent on Iraq.

That is in addition to $70 billion Congress has already appropriated in advance for the operations there over the next 10 months, adding up to $230 billion, nearly twice what was provided for the previous fiscal year. To date, the government has spent nearly half a trillion dollars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Because the money is not tallied in the usual budget, it isn't factored into the federal deficit or subject to mandatory spending caps and oversight provisions.

But in its broad assessment of the war, the Iraq Study Group said the American people deserve to know exactly where the money is going. It recommended that President Bush begin including money for the war in his annual budget request for the 2008 fiscal year -- due on Capitol Hill next February.

"The public interest is not well served by the government's preparation, presentation, and review of the budget for the war in Iraq," according to the report. "The circumvention of the budget process by the executive branch erodes oversight and review by Congress."

"Even worse," it added, the special war budgets have become "loaded with special spending projects that would not survive the normal review process."

For example, the emergency request under consideration is expected to include more items that are not directly tied to the missions in Iraq and Afghanistan, like $5 billion budgeted to develop the Army's new, high-tech ground vehicle, according to Pentagon documents. The project was started in the 1990s and won't be completed for several years.

In an October 25 memo, Deputy Secretary of Defense Gordon England broadened the definition of "incremental war costs" to the wider war on terrorism, expanding the "ground rules" for what the military could include in its war requests, such as advanced weapons and other equipment not necessarily required to fight in Iraq and Afghanistan.

That will further cloud things, according to budget experts.

"That's pretty open-ended. The core mission of the military is winning the war on terrorism," said Steve Kosiak of the nonpartisan Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. "That's like telling the military during the Vietnam War that war funding could be used to win the Cold War.

The emergency supplemental budgets include far less detailed information than is required in the federal budget.. And unlike the normal budget process, in which multiple congressional committees review the requests for nearly a year, the emergency expenditures are reviewed by the House and Senate appropriations committees, which have smaller staffs than the congressional armed services panels _ and they are under enormous pressure to approve them swiftly.

"When the president submits an emergency supplemental request, the authorizing committees are bypassed," the study group's report said. "The request goes directly to the appropriations committees, and they are pressured by the need to act quickly so that troops in the field do not run out of funds."

Members of Congress have repeatedly called on the White House to use the traditional budget process to pay for the war. Sen. John McCain Republican of Arizona, and Sen. Robert Byrd, Democrat of West Virginia, co-authored legislation requiring the war funding to be routed through the normal federal budget process.

The White House has resisted, maintaining they cannot predict how many troops will be needed and therefore cannot predict costs a year in advance.

Bush signed the defense bill containing the McCain-Byrd amendment this fall, but he later issued a "signing statement" asserting he has the power as commander-in-chief to ignore the budgeting law.

Sean Kevelighan, press secretary for the White House Office of Management and Budget said yesterday that "at this time I cannot comment on that specific report recommendation" from the study group.

But budget experts hope the report will lead incoming Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates to comply.

"This is a crucial finding," Gordon Adams, a senior budget official in the Clinton administration, said in an interview. The supplementals "do not provide adequate justification for the war costs and they have been abused by both the Pentagon and the Congress It is time for honest budgeting, honestly scrubbed and reviewed. We did it in Vietnam and Korea. We can do it today."

Kosiak agreed that after nearly four years in Iraq and more than five years in Afghanistan it seems doubtful that the government cannot anticipate war costs..

"Supplemtentals are supposed to be used for unanticipated emergencies," he said. Including the war costs in the annual federal budget, he added, "is perfectly feasible," would make "the government more accountable, and should lead to better oversight."

The next step, added Adams, should be greater detail about billions of dollars already spent.

"How about some detailed reporting on costs incurred while we are at it?" he said.

Bender can be reached at bender@globe.com.

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