February 26th, 2009
05:21 PM ET

The dirtiest word in the budget

[cnn-photo-caption image=http://i2.cdn.turner.com/cnn/2009/WORLD/asiapcf/02/20/afghan.detainees/art.afghanistan.afp.gi.jpg]

Adam Levine
CNN Supervising Producer

If ever a phrase has given "earmark" a run for most scorned fiscal term in Washington, "war supplemental" could well be that contender.

President Barack Obama has made a big deal of saying that he wants to stop what had been a contentious Bush administration habit of using the war supplemental, requests for funding that occur outside of the regular budget process, to get the billions of dollars needed for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

"No longer will we hide its price," Obama declared Tuesday in his speech to the joint session of Congress. War supplemental, you've been warned.

His spokesman Robert Gibbs called it "Enron accounting." BAM. POW. Take that war supplemental.

"Ending this deceptive practice is overdue," demands the Philadelphia Inquirer in a recent editorial. Don't let the door hit you on the way out, war supp.

The Bush crowd is use to defending the use of supplementals. Former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld told Congress back in 2005 that it was the most accurate way of accounting for the war. The drawn out budget process that starts about two years before the money is ever spent, is no way to get war costs hammered out, he told the House Armed Services committee.

"In war, circumstances on the ground can change quickly and what was not an urgent necessity at one point of a conflict might well prove to be urgent in the next as the enemy's strategy shifts and as new challenges arrive. Supplemental appropriations are prepared much closer to the time the funds are needed," Rumsfeld said. "This allows for somewhat more accurate estimates of costs, and more importantly, quicker access to the needed funds."

David Walker, who ran the Government Accountability Office for 10 years, said that there is a time and place for supplementals but an ongoing war is not one of them.

"Most are considered for emergencies, something that is unanticipated," he said. Like money to pay for the aftermath of Katrina, for example

"Keep in mind that in the normal process you are subject to the rules and limitations that exist when it comes to putting the budget together. You have an allocation for how much money you want to spend," Walker said. "Supplementals bypass all of that. You don't go through the process."

Walker said that there is a lot of uncertainty when it comes to budgeting for the war but "there is uncertainty in a lot of the budget."

The president seems to agree.

"For too long, our budget process in Washington has been an exercise in deception; a series of accounting tricks," Obama said earlier this week. "Budgeting $0 for the Iraq war - $0 - for future years, even when we knew the war would continue."

There's a new accounting sheriff in town, Obama declared in his speech Tuesday night.

"That is why this budget looks ahead 10 years and accounts for spending that was left out under the old rules – and for the first time, that includes the full cost of fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. For seven years, we have been a nation at war," Obama said.

The Pentagon said it will do the best it can to make it work.

"The desire is, yes, to try to get away from supplementals and take those costs, those recurring, predictable war costs, seven, eight years into these conflicts, and move them increasingly into the base budget," Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell told reporters Wednesday.

But Morrell said that such a system is not perfect, and it would be wrong to assume that all costs can be accurately predicted in advance.

"There are going to be costs associated with the war, associated with persistent presence around the world, that are less predictable, that are going to have to remain outside the base," he said.

By that, he means a war supplemental.

Filed under: 360° Radar • Economy • Pentagon • President Barack Obama • Raw Politics
soundoff (30 Responses)
  1. Annie Kate

    Congress will never give up its earmarks. The best thing Obama could do is to try to get line item veto so he can sign the overall bill but veto the pork in it. But I doubt Congress would ever give him that too.

    February 26, 2009 at 4:29 pm |

    All the earmarks in Barack Hussein Obama's stimulus bill were snuck in. Everybody knows full well that members of congress couln't read the 1200 page bill in one day. I beleie earmarks from either party should be addressed and voted on separately. As for Obama being honest withthe American people, I wouldn't hold my breathe.

    February 26, 2009 at 4:07 pm |
  3. Ken

    It is really quite stunning to ponder. How far we have strayed from our nation’s founding principles (ordered liberty, rugged individualism, limited government, self reliance, etc). How soft we have become as a nation. How low our threshold for any pain has become. How little the American people know about our nation’s founding, and the principles that this nation was founded on. How so few Americans truly understand our history. How our founding fathers risked literally everything (life, property, wealth, even family) to fight for their liberty… that same liberty that today we so quickly abandon to stave off the pain of the equivalent of national stubbed toe.As John Adams wrote during the dark days of the revolutionary war, Liberty once lost is lost forever. With the election of Barack Obama, and his radical nanny-state government plans, I fear that we are now on the fast track to voluntarily surrendering more of our liberty to government than ever before.

    Obama plans for cradle to grave government control of our lives are truly the greatest threat to our liberty as any we have faced. Once government has control over your health (big government universal healthcare system), then they essentially have control over your life… whether you get the treatment you need, and ultimately whether you live or die.

    Will Obama be satisfied with complete control over your life?

    February 26, 2009 at 4:01 pm |
  4. Arachnae

    Obama doesn’t understand the concept of living beyond your means. Individuals shouldn’t do it; and the country shouldn’t do it.

    This shows a stunning ignorance of basic economics. If the government does not increase spending substantially, even if they have to borrow the money to spend, we will be wallowing in recession indefinitely. The government and ONLY the government is large enough to get the economy going again. This is why we HAVE governments, for systemic problems such as this.

    February 26, 2009 at 3:23 pm |
  5. Annie Kate

    Cost overruns and under budgeting seem to be a constant in federal budgets and I can see where war could give rise to special costs that were not considered when the budget was first conceived. However, to not budget anything at all the first time through is ludicrous. There has to be a certain minimum that they know will be spent that could be placed in the budget plus a contingency amount for special circumstances that they only get if those circumstances occur – anything over that would probably have to be in a war supplement. One thing that needs to be encouraged though is coming in under budget and what is not used being put towards the deficit.

    February 26, 2009 at 3:21 pm |
  6. Mari, Salt Lake City

    @ Cindy in GA..... have you even bothered to go to ** recovery.gov*** to check out the Recovery Bill for yourself?? First, educate yourself, then by all means, complain.

    What I find interesting about the "far-right" crowd, is that they do not even address the crux of the article above, which was about Bush HIDING the cost of the war. As tax payers, we have every right to know what a war is costing, what our money is being used or squandered on. The far-right are simply ............ silent, not even admitting that Bush was wrong to hide the TRUTH.... just like the secret prisons of his, in foreign countries.


    February 26, 2009 at 3:03 pm |
  7. Tony

    Defense Spending. Constantly they include nothing but extremely poor program management by government and contractors. Cost Plus or T & M contracts are open inventation to steal tax dollars. Look at the F-22- 20 YEARS 4 times the original cost and it was delivered to Langley AFB with "blank panels" because technology was not delivered per contract; BUT the AF leadership and former military "officers" under contract, were paiid well. Investigate Wright Patterson F-22 Program Office and you will see thousands of F-22 excuses

    February 26, 2009 at 2:31 pm |
  8. Ron R

    To comment on Are the Republicans in any position to criticize President Obama on the recovery bill aka stimulus and the budget.
    The Gop and taking responsibility for anything they have done in the past, my answer is do elephants fly? One example is their track record in the past and the lack of coming up with a solution to the current state of affairs with the country during the Bush years, they saw it coming and as they have been acting now did nothing, On the I like to say the (recovery bill ) and the pork they say is in it, the one thing that I can see is that the earmarks in it do create jobs and put money out there to be spent here in the United States,
    What is the problem with that? One last comment even if Republicans are upset with some of spending with the bill they had a least one month or more to go through it, most people need to know that because the funding has been included in this bill that has passed and at this time most of the programs would be on the congress and senate floors sometime in future and would have to go through the long process to be approved and are needed now and so all the pork they are upset about is and will help and save time so congress can spend their time now on moving forward on more pressing matters ! overall I believe that the recovery bill does put money out there that will help jump start the nation after all I see it as every time you spend a buck in the United States you are putting back into the economy and helping it thrive and when are the republicans going to take responsibility other than bicker, All I see is that help is on the way and some of it will come now and some later but a least there is hope and the word prosper on the way for us all in time! Obama the man with a plan! At least he has one

    February 26, 2009 at 1:54 pm |
  9. Larry L.

    ----------–Obama says NO EARMARKS-------

    The BILL HAS over 9000 pork projects--READ IT !!!! The ONLY way someone can support this is to not read or looked at any of it,that means you .

    February 26, 2009 at 1:48 pm |
  10. Ron concord ca

    Just a few words on the what should be diclosed in the budget,
    Everything but details about military spending, and funding concerning national security and international concerns,

    Any other funding for the budget should be transparent, their are some things that we as citizens don"t need to know and also the world and that encludes even Cnn!
    have a great news day

    February 26, 2009 at 1:33 pm |
  11. S.J. Wilhelm

    Thousands of people are losing their homes. The homeless populations everywhere is booming and many of these over 65%, have put their self in this mess.Congressmen are out of touch as the bank executives. Thousands of people are losing their homes. The greed and living above their means have place them just where they should be. You can't drive a Cadliiac on a beer salary so now paid for your mistake's

    S.J. Wilhelm

    February 26, 2009 at 1:17 pm |
  12. Katie

    I agree with the President. A budget is a 'best estimate' of operating expenses and surely something as major as a war should be included. IF the estimate is short, then a supplemental request could be submitted, but to leave it out altogether seems ridiculous.

    February 26, 2009 at 1:00 pm |
  13. David the doc...

    As an outsider, with perhaps a different perspective, I think dirtier word....how about "healthcare".

    February 26, 2009 at 12:49 pm |
  14. Baze

    Of course the previous administration both hid and/or embellished the price of war. The whole purpose of Iraq was to obtain total pricing authority over oil, and create a fiscal vaccuum for the administration's cronies in the private industry to secure their wealth for generations to come.

    February 26, 2009 at 12:45 pm |
  15. Clark

    Congress needs to make a list of priorities that the Constitution gives them (at the federal level) responsibility for ... and then fund the number 1 priority then the number 2 and so on .... when the money runs out the other priorities need to wait until the next year .... just like real people do in their normal every day lives.

    February 26, 2009 at 12:02 pm |
  16. Arachnae

    Thousands of people are losing their homes. The homeless populations everywhere is booming and they want to build another building on a university in their home town?? Or any one of 8500 other projects?

    How is building a university LESS stimulative than building a highway overpass or an airport runway? Construction jobs are some of the most stimulative in terms of return on investment there is.

    February 26, 2009 at 12:01 pm |
  17. David Scott Thackeray

    Obama has got it right Anderson.
    Instead of suggestting that he may have bit off more than he could chew; you and your media types need to get on his band wagon to ensure that his( the proper ) agenda is adhered to by all those congress persons entrusted to carry on in the public good. Not those discusting special interest groups that always squeek like pigs coming to the trough. If you continue to cast dought on the validity or the doability of his programs you are only supporting the status quote.
    Anderson, I know CNN sets the policy but you set the tone. Let's get with it then.

    February 26, 2009 at 12:00 pm |
  18. robyncaffrey keyser westvirginia

    alllllllll wright"

    yes we can '

    February 26, 2009 at 11:50 am |
  19. Travis

    What I find sadly humerous is that congress and our Beloved Leader lambast corporate america for “wasting taxpayer money”. If that isn’t the pot calling the kettle black I don’t know what is! Afterall, isn’t ALL spending stimulative? According to some it is.

    February 26, 2009 at 11:35 am |
  20. xtina, chicago IL

    Obama doesn't understand the concept of living beyond your means. Individuals shouldn't do it; and the country shouldn't do it.

    example: $5.8 million for design of the Ted Kennedy Institute. Wonder how much $$ to actually BUILD the place. Now is the Ted Kennedy Institute absolutely essential ?

    February 26, 2009 at 11:35 am |

    I wonder why Obama allowed all the earmarks in the so-called stimulus package. I beleive 35% of it was eramarks or pork. I don't believe him now that he claims to be clamping down on earmarks.

    February 26, 2009 at 11:15 am |
  22. Dephlogisticated Sinovium

    It's just wrong to designate money for certain purposes. It should be used for the most pressing matters at hand.

    February 26, 2009 at 11:15 am |
  23. Cindy

    If this president wants to be so "HONEST" then why can he not admit to this day that there are many earmarks or pork or what ever else you want to call them in the stimulus package that he swore there would be none in! Yeah..he is as transparent as a piece of wood being held up to the sunlight! There's lots of substance there but you just don't know what it truly is made of!


    February 26, 2009 at 11:15 am |
  24. Dephlogisticated Sinovium

    It's just wrong to designate money for a certain purpose. It should be used for the most pressing matters at hand.

    February 26, 2009 at 11:14 am |
  25. Cindy

    If this president wants to be so "HONEST" then why can he not admit to this day that there are many earmarks or pork or what ever else you want to call them in the stimulus package that he swore there would be none in! Yeah..he is as transparent as a piece of wood being held up to the sunlight! There's lots of substance there but you just don't know what it truly is made of!


    February 26, 2009 at 11:12 am |
  26. average americans

    Who is watching out for the average American lost in the middle?
    I'm an average American fed up with not being heard from, people who want answers from our local and federal governments. Our Country is heading down a path that I don’t know if I want to be part of. I’m sick of it, and I want answers because Our Country Is too Great to let this happen The world is Changing fast and we need to Stop trying to please everyone. As one no body will listen as a group of Average Americans we can stand together and voice are rights for being tax payers

    February 26, 2009 at 10:57 am |
  27. Debbie

    Whatever you call it, earmarks or porks, these congressmen are as out of touch as the bank executives. Thousands of people are losing their homes. The homeless populations everywhere is booming and they want to build another building on a university in their home town?? Or any one of 8500 other projects? How about some homeless shelters or renovating old hotels/motels to give the people who voted them into office a place to shower!! I'm mad that everyone is so out of touch and that greed is rampant even in congress and the senate.

    February 26, 2009 at 10:50 am |
  28. Michael C. McHugh

    LBJ used a lot of tricks to try to hide the real costs of the Vietnam War. (And that war destroyed him in the end, which is too bad because he might have been remembered as a good president otherwise.) Give Obama credit for his honesty.

    Soon, we should also bring more transparency to the Social Security Trust Fund. Just how much is really in there compared to what's supposed to be in it? How much is IOUs? How will we make up the shortfalls?

    February 26, 2009 at 10:48 am |
  29. Michael "C" Lorton, Virginia

    War is "big business with a big price tag,"-–I hope President Obama can deliver on his promise.

    February 26, 2009 at 10:31 am |
  30. llabesab

    The Anointed One, considering his facial features, should really understand the significance of "EARMARKS."

    February 26, 2009 at 10:30 am |