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$1 Trillion — and Counting
Posted by Jo Comerford on May 19th, 2009

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On September 12, 2001, could we have predicted spending $1 trillion for wars allegedly fought in response to the tragedy gripping our nation? Could we have imagined the wars’ human and economic costs?

Today, U.S. forces are profoundly engaged in both Iraq and Afghanistan, with approximately 200,000 troops in the region and more than 21,000 additional troops requested for Afghanistan by the Obama Administration. U.S. soldier and Afghan and Iraqi civilian casualties increase daily as the economic cost-of-war counters roll on.

The financial implications are staggering. The House passed a supplemental bill May 14 totaling $96.7 billion in emergency war appropriations for the back half of FY2009. President Obama’s initial request was $83.4 billion. The National Priorities Project (NPP), a nonprofit organization that analyzes the federal budget, estimates that $77.1 billion of President Obama’s initial request was for war and ancillary operations. Of that, $52.7 billion was dedicated to the Iraq War and $24.4 billion for the expanding war in Afghanistan and related operations.

No matter how we slice the numbers, we must consider that each dollar spent to fight wars in Afghanistan and Iraq is a dollar not spent to further some other endeavor. Massachusetts taxpayers could pay more than $2.2 billion for Thursday’s House supplemental vote alone. For the same amount of money, we could provide four years of healthcare for 95,000 people, or send 56,000 students to four years of college.

To date, the cost of war approved by Congress is $830.2 billion ($657.3 billion to Iraq and $172.9 billion to Afghanistan). The $77.1 billion from the initial supplemental request brought total war spending to $907.3 billion since 2001. Since the Senate appears on its way to joining the House in considering additional supplemental funding, total war spending could easily exceed $907 billion at the close of the reconciliation process.

That is before you add another $130 billion for war, pending as part of President Obama’s FY2010 budget proposal. We will hit the $1 trillion marker before we know it, with no end in sight.

In the next fiscal year, U.S. military funding will consume nearly one-fifth of all mandatory and discretionary spending. It is a proverbial $704 billion gorilla in President Obama’s $3.4 trillion budget. If unchecked, it threatens to choke the long-term meaningful advances he proposes for healthcare, renewable energy, agriculture and education. Secretary Gates has proposed an unprecedented amount of cuts to Pentagon spending, slowing the growth of U.S military spending. While this is commendable, he and the Obama Administration must go further.
Much further.

There is no time to waste. Governor Deval Patrick is not alone as he faces a growing budget deficit and the prospect of devastating social program cuts. Governors, mayors and city councils across our nation report similar agonies.

It would be wrong to ignore the ways in which the Obama Administration has already heard the cries of a concerned electorate and citizenry. The American Reinvestment and Recovery Act of 2009 considerably boosts Massachusetts’ federal funding levels, yielding $137.9 million for Community Development Block Grants and $813.3 in Education State Grants.

The FY2010 budget continues this positive trend at a modest pace. Even “small” spending increases at the national level, such as a 4 percent increase from 2008 to 2010 in budget lines for the environment, energy and science, can have a major impact at the state level. Massachusetts, for example, will see an increase in funding for weatherization assistance for low-income persons from $6.6 million in 2008 to $67.2 million in 2010 (in constant dollars).

But the cost-of-war gorilla cannot be ignored. Its sheer size demands that we re-examine it. We must broaden our definition of national security so that it includes adequate funding for our communities in the form of healthcare, decent jobs, affordable education, a clean environment and a willingness to reflect on the way our nation engages the world.

The $1 trillion we will pay for war since 9/11 has placed enormous stress on our federal budget, which we can ill afford during the current recession. People will continue to debate the efficacy of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq in geopolitical terms. But it is ironic that we risk weakening the very institutions—and thus our security—that those wars ostensibly are being waged to protect. We won’t be able to prevent crossing the chilling $1 trillion mark, but we can act now to invest in our security more wisely.

Congresswoman Barbara Lee once called the federal budget a moral document. Its spending priorities reflect these morals and call us all to the task of engaging the Obama Administration and our state and federal officials. All voices must be part of the national budget debate at such a critical—yet promising—time for our nation.

Jo Comerford is executive director of the National Priorities Project (www.nationalpriorities.org) in Northampton, Massachusetts.

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