VA entitlements strain coffers

From the BDN this week
VA entitlements strain coffers 
8/16/10 06:20 pm  Updated: 8/16/10 09:58 pm
Robert C. Hauhart


In the July 28 opinion column “About entitlements, no more ‘me first’,” Neel Kashkari argues that the fiscal crisis in Europe has awakened Americans to the challenge presented by federal “entitlements.” Although Kashkari provides no data to suggest Americans have become more concerned about entitlements, he apparently is and wishes more Americans were.

More accurately, Kashkari might have said the U.S. intervention in the Middle East has awakened a desire for the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts to be over. This view is supported by polls regarding military spending: The public has voiced its approval repeatedly for reduced military expenditures as a direct approach to reining in the U.S. budget. Kashkari’s focus on entitlements ignores the other silent elephant in the room — the military budget.

American disillusion with the war has been noted by several recent polls. A July 13 CBS News poll found that 62 percent of Americans think the war in Afghanistan is going badly and 54 percent favor a strict withdrawal timeline.

According to an ABC–Washington Post poll reported three days later, support for the Afghanistan war has declined from 52 percent of respondents in December 2009 to 43 percent currently. In the same poll, 71 percent of Americans favored removing all combat troops still in Iraq by August.

One of the primary sources of disenchantment with the wars is the cost — although the more than 5,600 American lives lost is a strong motivator as well. The National Priorities Project, for example, has calculated the cost of both the Iraq and Afghanistan wars as $1.05 trillion through December 2009.

USA Today reported that in February, the cost of the Afghanistan war surpassed that of Iraq for the first time — at a monthly cost of $12.2 billion for both. The current government estimate for the year ending Sept. 30 is $105 billion for Afghanistan and $66 billion for Iraq.

The actual expenditures will likely be higher — up to the $200 billion range. These “operating costs” are supplemental over and above the $660 billion annual Defense Department appropriation. It’s not surprising then that many Americans favor cutting the military budget as one of their top two government cost-saving priorities. The other, according to a recent Harris-Financial Times poll, is foreign aid.

Kashkari is indeed correct that government projections show that legally mandated federal expenditures are expected to increase dramatically as our population ages and otherwise suffer illness and injury. Given the current $13 trillion deficit, every responsible economist is concerned about the gap between revenue and expenditures. In his focus on entitlements, Kashkari is no doubt concerned about the substantial (and dramatically increasing) costs for benefits for current and former members of our armed services.

As Kashkari knows, the Department of Veterans Affairs has its own separate budget. In fact, Congress has been holding hearings regarding the 2011 VA appropriations request. (The July 28 hearings were titled: Continuing Oversight of Inadequate Cost Controls in the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.)

The VA’s budget consists of two major items — compensation-pensions for retired military (about $60 billion) and medical care for veterans ($57 billion). Former service members are entitled to receive these benefits under current law for their service. (That’s where the word “entitlements” comes from.)

More than 30,000 U.S. troops have suffered injuries in Iraq and Afghanistan. Many of them will require some degree of lifetime care. Since so many injuries arise from this war, and they directly affect the VA’s legally mandated entitlements, one way to reduce these expenditures is to limit injuries to American service members.

In any event, when debating the national budget, it’s essential to get all the elephants into the room.

Robert C. Hauhart is an associate professor of criminal justice and legal studies at Saint Martin’s University in Lacey, Wash. He lives in Steuben in the summer and teaches distance education classes for the University of Maine at Machias.

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