Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Scaling Back on the Luxuries 

The war in Iraq now costs you, the American taxpayer, $6.7 billion each month, or well over a billion and a half a week. When unanticipated expenses (such as skyrocketing fuel prices; remember when oil revenues were supposed to pay for the cost of the occupation?) left the Army scrambling to cover a $1.43 billion shortfall, one obvious solution presented itself -- raid the vehicular armor fund, which serves absolutely no useful purpose apart from keeping American soldiers alive:
The Pentagon reversed a plan to ease the Army's year-end cash crunch by borrowing from funds dedicated to buying better armored vehicles for troops in Iraq.

The $300 million-plus transfer had met strong behind-the-scenes opposition in Congress over the past week. The skirmish underscores the budget pressure on the military, given the tempo of operations in the war, rising fuel costs and competing priorities like the Hurricane Katrina recovery.

"We did get some people excited. It raised the hair on the back of their necks," said Lt. Gen. Jerry Sinn, a top Army budget official, who confirmed the reversal in an interview yesterday. He said he knew in advance the appearances could be awkward but said the transfers were never intended to be more than a "temporary loan" that would be repaid before impeding production.

Nonetheless, Gen. Sinn said defense officials had "blinked a little bit" at the proposal. And lawmakers said the fact that the Army would consider touching such sensitive funds -- after all the public attention to the armor issue -- showed the pressure to keep down the costs of the war . . . .

To find savings within its own budget, the Army decided to tap a number of procurement accounts important to protecting forces in Iraq and restoring damaged equipment. These included the purchase of mortars and trucks, but none was more sensitive than those involving armored vehicles. An estimated $152.8 million was to come from funds to install armor on existing equipment. An additional $155 million would be taken from funds to purchase heavily armored Humvees.

The proposal was subject to veto by the major defense committees, which have 15 days to review the requests. From the outset, lawmakers were surprised that the office of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld hadn't come forward with alternative funding sources for the Army.

That is occurring now. Gen. Sinn said the Army request has been modified to tap funds in an Air Force capital account and a second more-generic account, the Iraq Freedom Fund, which is under Mr. Rumsfeld's direct control.
Tim Grieve of Salon's War Room asks the unavoidable questions:
Now the Pentagon says the Army will borrow the money from accounts that aren't so politically charged. But the larger point is this: If the Army is so strapped that it would actually consider borrowing $153 million -- the federal government equivalent of loose change under the sofa cushions -- from funds used to protect troops, where is the federal government going to come up with $200 b-b-b-billion to pay for the Katrina work?

So far, we've heard about lots of places where the government won't be finding the money. The president has announced that tax increases -- or even rollbacks of tax cuts -- aren't on any table where he's sitting. His press secretary suggested yesterday that the White House won't consider delaying the Medicare prescription drug benefit that it got through Congress by dissembling about its true cost. Proposals to carve the pork out of the just-passed $286.4 billion transportation bill would gore so many well-fed oxen that they're unlikely to get through Congress. And as Roll Call notes today, Congress has already rejected some of the $157 billion in budget cuts Bush was forced to propose even before Katrina struck.
For the benefit of the vitelloni among us, who are too lazy to click on the "well-fed oxen" link above:
You remember [Rep.] Don Young [R-AK]. He is the chairman of the House Transportation Committee and the man who helped lard the transportation bill with more than $1 billion worth of projects for Alaska. With Bush having ruled out tax increases to pay for Katrina relief, the money the federal government will spend has to come from somewhere. Sen. John McCain and a few newspaper editorial boards have suggested that some of it might come from the transportation bill. Young's "bridge to nowhere" -- a $233 million project that will link the 8,000 residents of Ketchikan, Alaska, to Gavina Island -- is an oft-mentioned target.

So is Young "pulling together" to help the people of the Gulf Coast. Not exactly. "They can kiss my ear!" Young told a reporter from Fairbanks Daily News-Miner who asked him about suggestions that Alaska give up its highway pork to help pay for Katrina relief. "That is the dumbest thing I've ever heard."
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