Fantasy Budget: The Washington Post, Wednesday, March 19, 2003

FOLLOWING A SURREAL timetable, the Senate and House are apt this week to approve budget resolutions that would lock in huge tax cuts without setting aside a penny for war in Iraq. Then the administration would unveil a "supplemental" spending request -- and demand that a check be cut immediately.

For the administration, this schedule carries two advantages. No war numbers are released to jeopardize the tax package; then, once war is underway, Congress dares not challenge a spending request. But why should Congress go along with such a charade? The administration scornfully dismisses questions about price -- "If you don't know if it's going to last six days, six weeks or six months, how in the world can you come up with a cost estimate?" Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld asked last month -- but it is preparing an initial spending request that it will submit within days of first hostilities. Indeed, administration officials privately have briefed select lawmakers about the coming request for what is apt to be just the first installment of war funds.

The 1991 Persian Gulf War cost $80 billion in current dollars (all but $4 billion of which was paid by U.S. allies). Drawing on that experience, the Democratic staff of the House Budget Committee last September estimated the cost of a war with 250,000 troops deployed at $48 billion to $60 billion, assuming 30 days of fighting. The Congressional Budget Office this month estimated the cost of a similar conflict at $33 billion ($14 billion to get the troops there, $10 billion for the first month of fighting and $9 billion to bring the troops home.) The word from Capitol Hill is that the administration sets the cost even higher, about $62.5 billion just for initial military needs.

That's only the beginning. The administration is expected to request about $10 billion in war-related foreign aid, $7.5 billion for intelligence and more funds for the FBI, homeland security and possibly cash-strapped states. Then there are the postwar costs. Steven M. Kosiak of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments estimates that postwar peacekeeping could easily cost more than the war itself: about $45 billion over five years, assuming 40,000 troops remain in Iraq (the peacekeeping presence in Bosnia and Kosovo has involved an average of about 10,000 troops). Add to that billions more for humanitarian assistance, reconstruction and nation-building.

All this assumes things go well. Yale University economist William D. Nordhaus analyzed the overall effect of a war, both in terms of direct costs and its impact on the economy. His optimistic scenario totaled $99 billion over the next decade, which assumed a $17 billion boon to the economy and $40 billion in benefits from lower oil costs. His darker scenario is dismal: $1.9 trillion, the biggest pieces of which are the impact of higher oil prices ($778 billion), the cost of postwar occupation ($500 billion) and an economic downturn ($391 billion).

We believe that prosecuting this war is necessary, and a commitment to postwar reconstruction will be crucial. But that doesn't mean Congress should stick its head in the budgetary sand and ignore the war's price tag. As it works on the budget, it should heed John Maynard Keynes's advice: Better to be "vaguely right than precisely wrong." To approve a budget plan including large tax cuts without attempting even to estimate the cost of the war would be breathtakingly irresponsible.