Fact-Checking AP 'Fact Checker' Woodward: Bush Did Not 'Keep the Cost of Wars Out of Budgets'

February 15th, 2012 12:20 PM

On Monday, Calvin Woodward, with help from Martin Crutsinger and Pete Yost, produced a "Fact Check" on the budget proposal the White House released earlier that day.

After properly criticizing the administration's plan to use "about $850 billion in savings from ending the wars and steers some $230 billion of that to highways" (and actually quoting someone knowledgeable, who pointed out that "Drawing down spending on wars that were already set to wind down and that were deficit-financed in the first place should not be considered savings"), Woodward went off the rails:

President George W. Bush kept the cost of the wars out of his budgets, a contentious accounting maneuver that may have papered over the impact on spending projections but deepened the national debt as surely as if the price tag had been shown transparently. Taken together, the Bush and Obama budget tricks seem to suggest war costs nothing but ending it frees a ton of money.

Horse manure.

It would be one thing if Woodward wished to criticize Bush 43 for not separately breaking out the wars' costs from the rest of the Defense Department's budget. But as written, he makes it appear as if those costs weren't in any budget anywhere. Though the contention conveniently feeds a long-held far-left myth, it simply isn't so.

From a practical standpoint, breaking of the wars' costs would have been difficult, time-consuming, and contentious, with all kinds of cost allocation, compliance, and reporting issues that really didn't worth the bother. Total Defense Department spending hasn't increased by nearly as much as many critics believe it has. Full-year figures for fiscal years ended September 30, 2001 (the last full pre-war year) through 2011 are as follows (in billions; obtained from related September Monthly Treasury Statements; percentages are annual increases over the prior year):

2001 -- $290.9
2002 -- $332.1 (14.2%)
2003 -- $388.9 (17.1%)
2004 -- $437.1 (12.4%)
2005 -- $474.4 (8.5%)
2006 -- $499.4 (5.3%)
2007 -- $529.9 (6.1%)
2008 -- $594.7 (12.2%)
2009 -- $636.8 (7.1%)
2010 -- $666.7 (4.7%)
2011 -- $678.1 (1.7%)

How much of these increases were due to the wars? How much represents "normal" budgetary growth (though probably a bit excessive, as has been the case in almost every area of government for decades)? Finally, and we should never forget this, how much represents the need to rebuild the military after years of neglect during Bill Clinton's two terms? Really, Calvin, for the purposes of your analysis, who cares? Costs kept right on rising at a fairly high rate even after we were fully engaged, and haven't really come down much until the current year even though we have been drawing down troops levels since 2009.

Through the first four months of the current year, spending of $219.7 billion is actually 6.2% below last year's comparable figure of $234.1 billion.

Woodward's central point that defense costs are already anticipated to come down and that you can't double-count a so-called "peace dividend" (see Egypt, Syria, and elsewhere for reasons to doubt that the "peace" necessary for a "peace dividend" to come about really exists) is fine. But he didn't need to perpetuate a fib about a non-existent Bush 43 "budget trick" to make it. But I guess once you're on the "blame Bush" bandwagon, it's hard to get off.

Cross-posted at BizzyBlog.com.