Iraq War Senate Appropriations Hearing: Nussle’s Nonsense Distorts the Record

The Bush administration requested $190 billion in war funding for fiscal year (FY) 2008. Congress approved $87 billion of this request in late 2007, leaving the remaining $103 billion to be considered in 2008. Additionally, in February 2008 the administration submitted a placeholder $70 billion request for war funding in FY 2009. Press reports indicate that Congressional Democrats may combine the remaining $103 billion FY 2008 request and $70 billion FY 2009 placeholder into a “super supplemental” that will fund ongoing military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan through early 2009.

On April 16, the Senate Appropriations Committee held a hearing on this complicated supplemental funding situation with Office of Management and Budget Director Jim Nussle. Nussle was subjected to a flurry of tough questions from Democratic and Republicans lawmakers, many of whom expressed frustration over the administration’s refusal to finance the wars through more transparent budgetary processes.

Senators had every right to be upset. Nussle’s testimony was riddled with misleading half-truths and outright inaccuracies. Here are some of Nussle’s more egregious statements.

NUSSLE: Congress, I believe, needs to fund our troops by Memorial Day…Failure to act quickly could result in an unfortunate replay of what happened last December, when furlough warnings were issued by the Department of Defense.

FACT: The Bush administration may want to stage a political stunt by sending out furlough notices, but military leaders have been clear about the necessary timeline for approving the next war supplemental.

The Department of Defense (DOD) told Congress that the Army could finance its Operations & Maintenance costs until the beginning of July 2008, and its Military Personnel costs until about late June, using funds already appropriated by Congress to date. The Congressional Research Service estimates that DOD could continue to finance war costs for an additional one to two months by using currently available tools, such as transfer authority, to provide additional resources to the Army if Congress has not passed the pending FY 2008 supplemental request by July 2008.

NUSSLE: The administration chose to request war funding [for FY 2009] as an emergency supplemental in order to provide flexibility to the Department of Defense and our military commanders, in order to address the changes that inevitably occur on the ground. The ability to respond to changing conditions and requirements in the field has and will continue to ensure that our troops have the very best resources to succeed in their mission.

FACT: The Bush administration’s stated desire to “provide flexibility” flies in the face of Congressional requirements and may have been an attempt to lowball the funding request so as not to alarm the American public about ever-mounting total war costs.

The FY 2007 Defense Authorization bill, a measure that passed in a Republican-controlled Congress under the stewardship of Sens. John Warner (R-VA) and John McCain (R-AZ), contained a provision mandating that the Bush administration present its full war funding request alongside its “base” budget request at the beginning of each year. The White House complied with this requirement in FY 2008, presenting its full (at the time) $142 billion war funding request in February 2007. Unfortunately, the administration abandoned this good faith compliance in its FY 2009 war funding request.

The White House claimed that it wanted to wait for recommendations from military commanders, including an anticipated spring report by Army General David Petraeus, before submitting any more of its request. But this rationale doesn’t hold up in light of the fact that the full FY 2008 war funding request was submitted at a time when the “surge” was only beginning in Iraq and conditions were just as uncertain as they are today. Refusing to submit its full FY 2009 war funding request may have been an attempt on the part of the administration to shield the American public from the price tag of the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, the cost of which is projected to reach $870 billion or more by the end of 2008.

NUSSLE: We also chose to request war funding as an emergency to ensure that when our troops come home we haven’t left the Department of Defense with an overinflated budget that could be difficult to adjust in the future.

FACT: Experts on defense budgeting in the United States have widely acknowledged the ways in which the continued use of supplemental funding is actually harming the Department of Defense.

Admiral Michael Mullen, the current chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said in January 2008 that “supplementals need to be dramatically reduced and put in the baseline budget as rapidly as we can.” The prestigious Iraq Study Group stated in its 72nd recommendation that “costs for the war in Iraq should be included in the President’s annual budget request, starting in FY 2008: the war is in its fourth year, and the normal budget process should not be circumvented.” Well-known budget analyst Steven Kosiak told the Senate Budget Committee in February 2007 that “[DOD] sent the Services new guidance to use in drawing up their respective requests…with this guidance, the Defense Department essentially opened the floodgates in terms of what the Services could ask to have funded through [global war on terror] supplementals…such guidance amounts to, in effect, telling the Services that they no longer need to find room in the regular annual defense budget to cover the full cost of their long-term plans.”

Finally, the Congressional Research Service, Congressional Budget Office, and Government Accountability Office have all concluded that the supplementary war funding process weakens Congress’s ability to provide the type of oversight absolutely necessary for fostering DOD accountability.

NUSSLE: The President made the decision that he did not want to tie the hands of the next commander-in-chief, in determining what the strategy and corresponding funding would be after taking office, after the election this year, that [is why] we would put a [$70 billion] placeholder [for FY 2009 war funding] in there.

FACT: Despite this altruistic claim, President Bush’s motivation for submitting only a $70 billion placeholder for the FY 2009 war funding request was undoubtedly political.

Submitting only a portion of its war funding request indicates that the White House will not fund operations in Iraq through all of fiscal year 2009, which ends Sept. 30, 2009. By dragging its feet, the Bush administration ensures that the next president and the 111th Congress will confront major war cost questions soon after taking office in early 2009. If a Democrat is elected president, he or she will immediately be placed between a rock and a hard place: Ask Congress quickly for billions of dollars in war funding, or face accusations from Republicans of not supporting the troops. The new Democratic president will be forced to request money to avoid this criticism, a move that will renege on campaign promises to wind down the war, elicit cries of “flip-flopping” from Republicans, and infuriate the majority of the American public that considers itself anti-war and sees a vote for a Democratic president as a vote to end the war.

President Bush is playing political hardball with the war budget. Reliance on political posturing and stopgap supplemental war funding is not the way our government should pay for America’s military needs.

NUSSLE: Many other expenditures for wars in the past have been funded in a similar way, and it’s for that reason that we make the request [as an emergency supplemental] the way we do.

FACT: Since 2001, the ongoing use of supplementals by the Bush administration to finance military deployments abroad has risen to historically unprecedented levels.

A June 2006 Congressional Research Service study concluded that during conflicts of the past 60 years, supplemental funding was used only initially to finance U.S. military operations. As soon as even a partial projection of costs could be made, usually within a year or two at most, ongoing military operations were funded through normal Pentagon appropriations bills. The Bush administration, however, continues to finance ongoing military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan through the supplemental process. Using supplementals during the early years of these conflicts made sense because exact requirements were largely unknown and there was no baseline from which to derive estimates for the year ahead. Six and a half years later, however, this is no longer a legitimate justification. The Bush administration’s exploitation of war supplementals sets a dangerous precedent for the future and threatens to further weaken the federal budgeting process.

For more information on the supplementary war funding process, see “Problems with Using Supplementals to Fund Ongoing Military Operations in Iraq,” Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation (March 2008).