Adding It All Up

03/30/2011 04:27 pm ET | Updated May 30, 2011

If you tuned in to the news this week, you've seen two big stories dominating the headlines and the networks: the conflict in Libya and the pending budget negotiations. (For the record, I don't count the escaped Bronx Zoo cobra as a big news story.)

Both Libya and the budget are big stories; both are important issues facing our nation. But they're being treated as two different stories -- and that's the problem--they're not.

Anyone who believes the actions we take in Libya are unrelated to the budget battle would probably believe that federal funding of National Public Radio caused our $1.3 trillion deficit. The facts just don't add up -- and that's exactly what we need to start doing -- adding things up.

Under our last President, we went into two overseas wars without proper accounting. We've spent billions in off-budget taxpayer dollars in Iraq and Afghanistan. But not including those sums in our yearly budgets didn't erase them -- it just added to the deficit. And now we're faced with the threat of a government shutdown over the deficit.

Republicans are trying to cut that deficit by looking at only 15% of the entire federal budget. And they're trying to make you think that Big Bird and cervical cancer screenings left us $1.3 trillion in the hole. They didn't.

That's why I've been calling for an accurate price tag for the Libyan conflict. I don't think we can have an honest discussion about the budget without honestly accounting for our spending in Iraq, Afghanistan, and now, Libya. These things add up. And if we spend our money on military conflicts, we have less to spend on other things. We can't just take that funding off the books and hope it goes away.

Budgets are more than numbers. They're documents that lay out our national priorities. How much are we going to spend on what? That's a very tough question. And the fight in Washington to answer that question is a genuine one that needs to be had -- but let's be honest about it. Wars aren't free, they certainly aren't cheap, and they should never be easy decisions. And when we add up the costs, we have to look at more than missiles.

Earlier today I heard from a number of veterans groups and organizations at a joint hearing of the House and Senate Veterans Affairs committees. Arthur Cooper, President of the Retired Enlisted Association, talked about the cost of freedom - the very real sacrifices so many of our troops and veterans make for this country. I've visited too many young men and women who are back from Iraq and Afghanistan and are missing limbs, or facing paralysis, PTSD and severe head injuries. These are human costs, and they are as real and as tangible as any tomahawk missile or F-22. These human costs, and the financial costs of caring for young veterans with severe injuries for 50 or 60 years to come, must be accounted for when we talk about war. Because all those costs add up to a lot of federal dollars.

Now, that doesn't mean we never use military action -- it just means that we account for it. According to the Pentagon, we've already spent $550 million in just 10 days of intervention in Libya. And according to some estimates, we'll be spending $40 million per month in Libya going forward. I'm not saying it's not worth it, but I am saying it needs to go on the books.

And as we go into the next round of budget talks, I'm ready to cut federal spending. I just think we need to look at more than 15% of the budget to find those cuts. I think we need to be smart and thorough about our cuts, and not just hack away at important programs that create jobs and help our economic recovery. And I think we need to be honest about all our spending -- in Libya, in Iraq and Afghanistan, and right here at home.

If we want to solve our budget problems, we've got to start adding it all up.

Crossposted from Bleeding Heartland