Congress hopes to hold hearings on the financial implications of the war before the president releases his budget proposal for fiscal year 2008 on Feb. 5. Democrats, now in the majority, plan to ask a wide range of questions, from the future costs of the war to how those costs should be budgeted.
"We won't balance the budget in one year. The best we can expect is five years," says Rep. John Spratt (D) of South Carolina, the new chairman of the House Budget Committee, in a phone interview. "But we need to know: What is the bar we need to reach?"
Estimating the budget deficit has become more difficult in recent years because the White House has funded much of the war through emergency supplemental bills, which are not included in the federal budget. According to a Congressional Research Service report, it is a practice that other administrations have employed since the Korean War. This year, the White House is expected to ask for another $100 billion in supplemental war funds, but Representative Spratt says he would like to get the war back on the budget since it can be argued the war is no longer an emergency.
"Calling it an emergency means the spending does not get the scrutiny," he adds, because then the spending is reviewed by only one committee – House Appropriations. In addition, he says, emergency spending is exempt from caps on discretionary spending. This has prompted the military to include in the bill items that are not directly related to the war. Making the spending a part of the budget would end the practice of some members placing pet projects on a bill that must be passed, he says.
Numbers are fuzzy on how much has been spent so far on the global war on terror. According to the House Appropriations Committee, some $471 billion has been committed so far. Spratt says it's closer to $507 billion. By the end of this year, on a cash basis, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan will be closing in on the costs of the Vietnam War ($650 billion in today's dollars) and the Korean War ($691 billion).