Well, they're getting there.
When the White House unveiled its budget proposal for fiscal year 2006 last February, it failed to include money it would need during the year for military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq. White House budget director Joshua Bolten said that it "wouldn't be responsible" to include funding for the wars because no one knew just how much they'd cost. As we said at the time, "It's a little like planning a family budget but leaving zeroes for groceries and gasoline starting next year because you don't know exactly how much they'll cost. But gas and groceries won't be free next year, and neither will operations in Afghanistan and Iraq."
And -- who could have predicted it? -- it turns out that military operations in Afghanistan haven't been free in FY 2006. The fiscal year began in October. The Senate had approved $50 billion in FY 2006 war funding before the month was over, and the administration is now about to ask for $70 billion more to get it through the end of the year. If you're keeping score at home, that's $120 billion in costs that it wouldn't have been "responsible" to include in the budget.
So wouldn't it be "responsible" to include some war spending in the budget projection for fiscal year 2007? Apparently so, sort of. At Monday's press briefing on the president's 2007 budget, Bolten said the White House is coming down on the side of "transparency" by including $50 billion for military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan this time around.
That's a lot of money -- it's more than Donald Rumsfeld once said the entire Iraq war would cost -- but is it anything close to what the administration will actually need to spend?
Don't ask Bolten.
"It's very hard to say what we're going to be spending 18 months from now in Iraq," he said Monday. "It will depend entirely on the situation on the ground, how rapidly Iraqis are able to pick up responsibility for their own security and make it possible for the United States to bring our troops home more rapidly. So we've included that $50 billion not as what we think is an accurate estimate of what the war costs might be, but simply because we are adopting the wisdom that the Congress used in this past budget cycle of simply including a plug amount of $50 billion that gets adopted along with the regular appropriations, so that we're taking at least some account of the spending there. Whether that number will be higher or lower when we finally get there 18 months from now, I'm not really able to say and I don't think anybody else is really able to say."
That's a step toward honesty in the budget process, but it's only a small one. At the same moment that Bolten was explaining the uncertainties involved in projecting the costs of war, the White House was boasting -- without a hint of qualification -- that Bush's budget "keeps us on track to meet the president's goal of cutting the deficit in half by 2009." It's a claim that can come true only if a number of dubious assumptions prove to be correct -- economic growth is robust, Congress fixes the alternative minimum tax without hurting revenues, the IRS suddenly starts collecting billions more in taxes -- and if Bolten and his budget planners are exactly right in saying that war costs that no one can predict come in at or under the bargain-basement level that they have, in fact, predicted.