Coming to terms with Katrina's cost

The Army is so strapped it has contemplated borrowing money that was supposed to be used to armor Humvees to fund the war. How will we pay for Katrina?

Published September 20, 2005 6:12PM (EDT)

The Bush administration insists that the federal government can spend something like $200 billion on rebuilding the Gulf Coast while taking care of all of the government's other "priorities," retaining all of the president's tax cuts and still fulfilling the president's promise to cut the federal deficit in half by 2009.

It's a neat trick if you can pull it off. But if anybody needs a hint about just how hard it will be, the Army's budget for Iraq would be a good place to look. As the Wall Street Journal reports today, the Army's costs for Iraq are far exceeding estimates the Pentagon made just a few months ago, when Congress approved a supplemental spending bill for the war. Indeed, the Army is so close to running out of money for prosecuting the war now that it will have to borrow funds from other places before the end of the fiscal year. Where would the Army get the cash it needs? Until more politically sensitive heads prevailed, the Army planned to borrow from a fund that is supposed to be used to install armor on vehicles troops are using in Iraq.

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.

As we've explained before, the president's plan for cutting the deficit in half by 2009 has always been a sham: It begins with an artificially high starting point, and the projections it's built around don't include little things like, oh, say, the war in Iraq. When White House officials can say with a straight face that throwing an additional $200 billion on the expense side of the ledger won't change anything over the long term, well, it gives you a pretty good idea of just how loosey-goosey the plan was in the first place. The government can come up with $200 billion without somebody suffering some serious pain somewhere? Sure it can. And if you believe that, Saddam Hussein has got some weapons of mass destruction that he'd like to sell you.

By Tim Grieve

Tim Grieve is a senior writer and the author of Salon's War Room blog.

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