Paying for the war in Afghanistan

A group of powerful House Democrats pushes for Congress to reckon with the costs of the U.S. presence

Topics: Afghanistan, War Room, U.S. House of Representatives, Barney Frank, D-Mass., Charlie Rangel, D-N.Y., John Murtha, D-Pa.,

President Obama’s agenda this year has involved a number of big-ticket items: the stimulus, some of the bailouts, healthcare and cap-and-trade. And though some — or arguably, all — of these will actually increase federal revenue in the long term, they clearly give the impression of the government handling a lot of money, which can sound an awful lot like “the government is blowing through wads of your cash.”

Unsurprisingly, then, being a deficit-hawk is back in vogue among Republicans. It’s been one of the GOP’s main lines of attack against, well, everything — but particularly healthcare reform. One major policy debate, however, has managed to avoid any discussion of costs, even though the expenditures could total hundreds of billions of dollars, with little promise of return. That policy, of course, would be any escalation of the war in Afghanistan.

So Democrats who are skeptical of the war have started trying to play at the GOP’s game. Powerful House Democrats are speaking up in favor of some sort of new tax to defray the immense costs likely to be incurred in Afghanistan in coming years. The group includes Ways and Means Committee Chairman Rep. Charlie Rangel, D-N.Y., Appropriations Committee Chairman Rep. David Obey, D-Wis., Financial Services Committee Chairman Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., Rep. John Murtha, D-Pa., who runs a crucial armed forces subcommittee and Rep. John Larson, D-Conn., the number-four guy in the Democratic caucus.

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One of the ideas floating around is a graduated surtax on income, the size of which would depend on how much the war ends up costing. Says Frank, “It’s conditional, but if we’re going to add 40,000 troops, people ought to know what the costs are. It’s important for people to understand how these wars are adding to our deficits.”

As of now, the White House is staying neutral on this. Press Secretary Robert Gibbs points out that, as no decision has been announced about a broad policy approach for Afghanistan, there’s no public proposal on how to pay either, though conversations are going on in private.

Still, some administration-watchers have taken note of the presence at the Afghanistan meetings of Peter Orzsag, the director of the White House’s Office of Management and Budget. When asked about Orszag’s attendance, Gibbs explained simply, “Cost is a concern.”

Gabriel Winant is a graduate student in American history at Yale.

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