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.
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