WASHINGTON -- The cost of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan could total $2.4 trillion in the next decade, according to a nonpartisan budget analysis issued Wednesday that House Democrats held up as "mind-boggling."
The White House was quick to dismiss the figures from the Congressional Budget Office as hypothetical.
"We are on an unsustainable fiscal path, and something has to give," CBO Director Peter Orszag said in presenting the estimates to the House Budget Committee at the request of its chairman, Rep. John Spratt, D-S.C.
Spratt, of York, says he wants to highlight the cost of the wars, particularly the one in Iraq, so that both the public and policymakers will understand the tradeoffs.
"The $2.4 trillion estimate is half of what it would take to keep Social Security solvent for 75 years -- people can relate to that," he said in an interview.
The budget office analysts looked at two possible war scenarios to calculate a cost beyond the $600 billion that's already been spent, including $450 billion in Iraq alone. Including requested appropriations for fiscal 2008, the total cost is about $800 billion.
One scenario involved a troop withdrawal from 200,000 in 2008 to 30,000 in 2010, remaining at that level through 2017. That would cost an additional $570 billion, Orszag said.
The other scenario calculated the cost of leaving 75,000 troops in from 2013 to 2017 at $859 billion over spending through 2008.
For the first time, CBO also included interest in its calculations because the war has essentially been paid for with federal borrowing. Interest payments on spending so far would total $415 billion. Under the first scenario, there would be another $175 billion in interest payments, and under the second scenario, $290 billion in debt service would be added.
Rep. Lloyd Doggett, D-Texas, said the numbers were "mind-boggling" and referred to the war as the White House's "go-along misadventure."
The Bush administration has declined to make long-term projections because "the war is ever-changing" and costs are difficult to predict, said Sean Kevelighan, press secretary for the White House budget office.
"Congress got a predictable answer to its leading question, which was clearly intended to artificially inflate war costs (by) politicians in Washington trying to manage our military commanders," Kevelighan said.
Spratt said he's supported every supplemental budget request to ensure that troops in harm's way have what they need to succeed. But he thinks the White House has been dismissive about the costs of the war, and he views it as his responsibility to get the truth out.
"That's important. That's not a bean keeper's job," said Spratt, who served in the Army and worked in the Department of Defense comptroller's office before getting elected to Congress in 1982. "This is an important element of the total decision."
Spratt has been trying to put a price tag on the war since before it began. A report issued in 2002 by Democrats on the budget committee estimated the cost at $75 billion to $93 billion, not including an extended occupation, reconstruction or humanitarian expenses.
"We were trying to draw attention to the fact that unless we have allies in a coalition with us who could pull their weight, the costs could be quite substantial in light of the fact we intended to go all the way to Baghdad and change a regime," he said.
"Cost was not the only determinant, not then or today. The costs were significant enough that it has to be a factor."
At Wednesday's hearing, Spratt acknowledged that some might quibble with assumptions and methodology, "but no one can contest the enormous cost incurred so far in Iraq."
"By any yardstick, that's a staggering sum," he said.