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As late as last week, as the House and Senate debated the fiscal 2004 budget, the Bush administration insisted that it couldn’t say what the costs of the Iraq war and its aftermath would be. But on Monday, thinking that the budget debate was virtually over, the White House unveiled a precise war-cost number — $74.7 billion. This performance borders on contempt for the legislative branch of government.

Clearly, despite both demands and appeals from Members, the administration was hiding its best estimates of the war cost in order to try and smooth passage of President Bush’s $726 billion tax cut. In the Senate last week, Republicans voted down a Democratic attempt to postpone a budget vote until the war’s costs were known. The House Rules Committee blocked a similar amendment from even being considered.

We do not consider it our place to take a position on the size of the tax cuts or the budget deficit. For all we know, the combination of the two may give the economy just the boost it needs to restore steady growth. Moreover, no one can seriously argue that the administration should be denied the funds it needs to sustain U.S. troops valiantly risking their lives in Iraq, to provide humanitarian and reconstruction assistance and bolster homeland security during the war.

But Congress ought to be able to proceed with its budget deliberations in possession of the best information available — information, in this case, that has to come from the executive branch. This information was systematically denied — and Republican leaders in both the House and Senate colluded in the deception.

It’s true that the Senate overrode the GOP leadership to push through an amendment reducing the tax cut by $100 billion to cover war costs Friday. And Tuesday, when the Senate finally had the war numbers that lawmakers had been seeking last week, the chamber decided to cut Bush’s tax cut in half. That shows why the administration should have given Congress the necessary information as early in the budget debate as possible.

On Monday, a senior official briefing at the White House told reporters that the administration didn’t have an accurate estimate of war costs last week because it wasn’t clear whether Saddam Hussein was alive or dead and whether there might be an immediate surrender of the Iraqi regime.

“We would have had to share a very wide range” of war estimates, he said. Congress deserved those estimates, wide-ranging though they might have been. It wasn’t fear of inaccuracy that kept them secret. It was contempt.