Supplemental Appropriations: The Pentagon’s Ticket To Unchecked Spending

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By David Glaudemans – The use of emergency supplemental appropriations to fund the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and the “Global War on Terror” has significantly increased the defense budget, allowing the Pentagon to spend beyond the nation’s means. The Congressional Research Service (CRS) and the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) estimate that Congress has appropriated between $700 and $750 billion for the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and the Global War on Terror (GWOT). Of this, $500 billion – or 70% – has been approved in supplemental and emergency supplemental appropriations.

In past conflicts after a year or two the Defense Department (DOD) has included the cost of the war in the base defense budget, forcing the department to make spending tradeoffs and providing Congress with an opportunity for deliberative oversight. In Korea the supplemental request was reduced from $32.8 billion in 1951 to $1.4 billion in 1952. Similarly in Vietnam, supplemental requests for military operations had fallen to zero by 1969. Yet, operations in Iraq, Afghanistan and the GWOT continue to be funded through supplemental and emergency supplemental appropriations.

Moreover, the DOD has used these supplementals to purchase equipment that is not directly related to the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan or the GWOT. That is, the military is not just using supplemental appropriations to replace equipment damaged or worn-out in ongoing military operations, they are in fact seeking to replenish and modernize the force structure and major weapons platforms through supplemental appropriations. Between 2006 and 2008 for example, the DOD sought $33.6 billion in supplemental appropriations to replace and replenish major weapons platforms such as the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, CH-47 Chinook Helicopter and C-130J transport aircraft. By doing so, the DOD has circumvented the strategic planning architecture that determines the military’s force and hardware requirements.

This procurement strategy and the extensive use of supplementals to fund the military have several real consequences. First, because supplemental appropriations are requested and funded outside the normal budget process, Congress is less able to conduct rigorous oversight and evaluation of the request. The normal budget process is a continuum of hearings, negotiations, and deliberative debate in Congress. Yet supplementals are often whisked through Committee without the extensive ‘scrubbing’ process that is Congress’ prerogative.

Second, supplemental appropriations have allowed the Pentagon to avoid trade-offs. Normally the DOD would have to decide if it could afford to buy additional F/A-18E/F ($93.9 million per unit) aircraft for the Navy or move on to the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter ($121.9 million per unit). Instead, the Pentagon has the room to purchase both, using the supplemental appropriations. In a time when our nations’ resources are scarce, the DOD has been able to avoid difficult choices and the defense budget as grown to over $600 billion annually.

Finally, the Pentagon’s use of supplemental funds has served to hide the true size of the defense budget. This year, the DOD submitted a $515.4 billion request for FY09. Yet, this figure does not include the $70 billion requested for the GWOT, nor the additional $100 billion likely to be needed beyond that, as the testimony of Deputy Secretary of Defense Gordon England made clear. With these figures included, the Defense Department is requesting $685.4 billion for FY09; more than double the FY01 Defense budget.

All three current Presidential candidates have pledged to increase the size of the military and, by implication, the defense budget. Regardless of the merits of that policy, the next administration will face a budget process that has spiraled out of control. Congress must take action to reassert its appropriations and oversight responsibilities by ensuring that funds appropriated in a supplemental are only for genuine unforeseen emergencies. Congress can also limit supplemental appropriations to fund only that equipment that was damaged or destroyed as a result of ongoing operations in Iraq, Afghanistan and the GWOT. Building the military through supplemental appropriations avoids the strategic planning of the regular appropriations process, leading to inefficient use of increasingly scarce resources.

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David Glaudemans is a Research Associate with the Budgeting for Foreign Affairs and Defense project at the Stimson Center.  


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