A different kind of war-time sacrifice

A DIFFERENT KIND OF WAR-TIME SACRIFICE…. Lincoln raised taxes to pay for the Civil War. McKinley raised taxes to finance the Spanish-American War. Wilson raised the top income tax rate to 77% to afford WWI. Taxes were raised, multiple times, to help the nation pay for WWII, Korea, and Vietnam. Even the first President Bush raised taxes after the first war with Iraq to keep the deficit from spiraling out of control. It was simply understood — responsible leaders from both parties realized that wars were expensive, and had to be paid for.

What we saw from George W. Bush and Republican lawmakers during his two terms was without precedent in American history — policymakers cut taxes during a war, ran huge deficits, and effectively asked future generations to pay for our current national security agenda. The two ongoing conflicts have cost, by some estimates, $1 trillion and counting.

Attention now turns to how President Obama will respond to the same dilemma. If the administration sends an additional 30,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan, it would cost about $30 billion per year over existing spending on the war. Some savings are gained as we withdraw from Iraq, but the costs are quickly absorbed by the war in Afghanistan.

Bruce Bartlett reflects today on the growing interest in returning to the historical norm.

The White House has given no indication of how it plans to pay for expanding the war in Afghanistan. More than likely, it will follow the Bush precedent and just put it all on the national credit card. But at least some members of Congress believe that the time has come to start paying for war. On Nov. 19, Rep. David Obey, D-Wis., introduced H.R. 4130, the “Share the Sacrifice Act of 2010.” It would establish a 1% surtax on everyone’s federal income tax liability plus an additional percentage on those with a liability over $22,600 (for couples filing jointly), such that revenue from the surtax would pay for the additional cost of fighting the war in Afghanistan.

It’s doubtful that this legislation will be enacted. But that’s not Obey’s purpose. He will probably offer it as an amendment at some point just to have a vote. Republicans in particular will be forced to choose between continuing to fight a war that they started and still strongly support, or raising taxes, which every Republican in Congress would rather drink arsenic than do. If nothing else, it will be interesting to see those who rant daily about Obama’s deficits explain why they oppose fiscal responsibility when it comes to supporting our troops.

Obey makes no secret of his motives. He knows that deficits need to be reduced at some point and this will put pressure on spending programs he supports. “If we don’t address the cost of this war, we will continue shoving billions of dollars in taxes off on future generations and will devour money that could be used to rebuild our economy,” Obey explained in a press statement.

It’s also a test for the public. Support for escalation in Afghanistan appears, by some measures, to be growing. The question then becomes fairly straightforward — do Americans expect future generations to pick up the tab, or do they support higher taxes now to pay for the conflict?