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Itemize the Bill, Mr. Bush

September 10, 2003

The $87 billion that President Bush seeks to rebuild Iraq and Afghanistan is more than the $78 billion that all 50 states would need to balance their budgets next year. It's more than the $68.7 billion Bush wants next year for homeland security and the State Department combined. It's even more than the Pentagon plans to spend on all its new weapons systems next year.

So does it make sense for lawmakers to just fork over the whopping sum that Bush requested Sunday night? Only if Congress forces the administration to provide a clear plan for how it will spend the money and to ensure that it will halt further tax cuts for the wealthy.

Before the war, Congress barely debated the costs and dangers of invading Iraq. As Iraq teeters into anarchy and the United States faces a deficit of almost $500 billion in 2004, lawmakers can't afford to commit a similar mistake.

The Senate Armed Services Committee made a start Tuesday in questioning Paul D. Wolfowitz, a top Pentagon official, about the price of the U.S. occupation of Iraq. Unfortunately, he offered little more than vague generalities about the need to battle on in what Bush is suddenly calling the "central front" in the war on terror. Lawmakers need to cut through this fog and zero in on the administration's spending.

Taxpayers first deserve to know, in detail, what happened to the $79 billion that Congress already allocated for Iraq. How will the military run through what the administration says is at least $65.5 billion more? Why do Bush officials in their latest proposal dedicate so relatively little to the physical rebuilding -- the water, electric and oil systems -- of Iraq ($15 billion) and civilian programs in Afghanistan ($800 million)? And, because this clearly isn't the full and final bill, what might the final tab be?

The administration, which has been trying to put off delivering its latest budget figures for Iraq and Afghanistan until the last minute so lawmakers can't scrutinize them, urgently needs to provide spending breakdowns. Otherwise, it makes serious U.S. overseas involvements just look like a bonanza for Halliburton, Bechtel and the other well-connected contractors the Pentagon relies on.

Bush, who is asking for the biggest emergency spending since the beginning of World War II, can't evade efforts to tie together his foreign and domestic policies. The president's $87-billion request amounts to more than the entire tax reductions the bottom 60% of Americans received in his 2001 cut. If the 2001 tax cuts for the wealthiest 1% were frozen, the country would save $442 billion -- almost enough to wipe out the entire budget deficit for next year. Halting further tax cuts wouldn't be imposing a sacrifice on Americans; it simply would be not giving them a gift the country can't afford.

Until now, the administration, as Sen. Charles Hagel (R-Neb.) put it Sunday, has treated Congress "like a nuisance." Congress truly should become one and badger the administration to spell out its plans to pay for, execute and exit the occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan.

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