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Don't Mind If I Do Porkbarrel and the War on Terror

Porkbarrel and the War on Terror

by WINSLOW T. WHEELER

We’re in the middle of simultaneous wars against terrorism and insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the outcomes are anything but certain. To help fight these wars, Congress passed a gigantic $416 billion appropriations bill for the Department of Defense in July, which President Bush signed into law on Aug. 5. The measure, the president declared, ensures that "our armed forces have every tool they need to meet and defeat the threats of our time."

Well, not exactly. If you look at the hidden details of the legislation, it’s clear that Congress has failed dismally — and deliberately — to fulfill its constitutional mandates to "raise and support armies" and to "provide and maintain a navy."

Legislators have amply demonstrated that what they’re really interested in is raising and providing some home-state pork to impress voters in an election year. To that end, they have busied themselves with squeezing funds for war essentials such as training, weapons maintenance and spare parts — things troops in combat need more, not less, of — to send extra dollars their constituents’ way. And it’s equal-opportunity raiding: Both Republicans and Democrats have been fully engaged in this behavior. Even Capitol Hill’s self-proclaimed "pork buster," Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona, who has made a regular practice of calling his colleagues on their gluttony, has essentially given the gorging a wink and a nod.

A pork-hungry Congress has long been with us, of course, but this year, with our armed forces engaged on two major fronts, Congress has pushed the pork in the defense budget to an all-time high, totaling $8.9 billion. And even as they did so — and voted to fund wartime operations at only a fraction of what nearly all analysts agree is needed for the duration of 2005 — conservatives, liberals and moderates alike have presented themselves as doing everything they can think of to support the troops in the field. Don’t believe it.

A brief examination of how the Senate, where I worked for three decades for senators from both parties, handled the defense appropriations bill this summer illustrates the chasm between appearances and reality. On June 24, the chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, Alaska Republican Ted Stevens, rammed the $416 billion bill through the Senate in just a few hours. Forty-two amendments, the majority of them involving small spending projects promoted by senators with an eye on bringing home the bacon, were adopted by unrecorded "voice" votes — usually after cursory deliberation that failed even to explain the subject matter.

The next day’s Congressional Record provided some details when it printed the text of the amendments. There, for example, you can find the amendment offered by Democratic Sen. Max Baucus for a grant to Rocky Mountain College in his state of Montana for three Piper aircraft and a simulator, and Republican Sen. Rick Santorum’s $3 million add-on for an unbudgeted artificial lung device for the Army. By the time Congress had finished with the bill in July, House and Senate members had added more than 2,000 of these "earmarks," thereby achieving their new porcine record. Some of these items had at least some tenuous relevance to defense, but many didn’t. None, though, had been included in the defense budget put together by DOD and the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), and there was subsequently little, if any, objective evaluation — for instance, either by the Congressional Budget Office (CBO), the Government Accountability Office (GAO) or in a congressional hearing — of their cost and efficacy. Each one was literally a pig in a poke.

As usual, McCain performed the very useful task of highlighting many of the amendments, tallying up the cost and offering appropriately caustic remarks about his colleagues’ penchant for "porking up our appropriations bills." Based on such revelations, a few journalists wrote articles about some of the foolishness, such as how Stevens and his fellow Alaska Republican, Sen. Lisa Murkowski, had junked up the bill with help for their state’s fisheries.

But both McCain and the press were just going through the motions. With Stevens in a big rush to push the defense bill through in just one day, McCain helped speed things along by not taking the time to actually deliver his speech. Instead, he simply had Stevens insert the text into the Congressional Record. Stevens was probably happy to extend McCain this courtesy. Not only did the unspoken speech not draw undue attention to the Senate’s goings-on that day, but McCain was also helping out by taking no parliamentary action against the pork-laden bill. He didn’t even throw up a speed bump by seeking recorded roll call votes, let alone any real debate, on the pork amendments. Roll call votes take at least 15 minutes each, and spending that much time on a few dozen amendments was apparently more inconvenience than McCain was willing to impose.

Worse still, McCain’s printed speech also praised the Appropriations Committee and the Armed Services Committee, which had passed a bill authorizing the defense spending, and on which he is the second most senior Republican, for writing bills that "will enable us to continue to meet our obligations to support [armed] service members in the fight against terror." It is true that the bills add spending for personal armor for soldiers and other items that the committees eagerly flagged to the media and public, but other aspects of the legislation, about which they were all too quiet, reveal actions that take out much more than they put in.

In parts of the bill that no one talked about, the Armed Services Committee raided the accounts that support combat readiness. Specifically, the committee cut Army depot weapons maintenance by $100 million (just when the repair backlog from the wars has grown to unmanageable proportions), and it removed $1.5 billion from the services’ "working capital funds" for transportation and consumables (e.g. helicopter rotor blades, tank tracks, spare parts, fuel, food and much more). In one unseemly move, the committee also cut from one account $532 million for civilian repair technicians activated to support the deployed forces, claiming the money should have been credited elsewhere in the bill. But then it failed to add the money where it said it belonged.

In another feat of legislative trickery, the committee cut another $1.67 billion throughout the bill in anticipation of lower inflation in 2005 — a pretense at a savings that OMB said in written comments to the committee "do[es] not exist." OMB concluded that "the practical effect of these reductions would be cuts to critical readiness accounts." In response, the Armed Services Committee did nothing and urged the Senate to endorse its bill, which it did by a vote of 97-0 on June 23.

Thereafter, the Senate Appropriations Committee used other gimmicks to reduce essential defense accounts in its bill. By the time Congress had finished with the appropriations measure on July 22, I counted $4.534 billion in reductions, mostly buried in the General Provisions section in the back of the bill. Ostensibly labeled as "unobligated balances," "general reductions," "excessive growth," "adjustments" and savings due to "management improvements," these were simply offsets to accommodate the $8.9 billion pork invoice the appropriators wrote. That more than $2.8 billion of these cuts came in military pay and the Operations and Maintenance budgets that support soldiers’ salaries, training, spare parts, weapons maintenance and military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan shows where the committee’s real priorities lay.

Moreover, it is not as if Congress had not been told that its actions would cause problems: House and Senate hearings held in the spring and early summer, and a GAO study issued in July, were replete with assertions that the military services were facing underfunding for training, maintenance and purchases of spare parts. In June, OMB warned that "increasing Congressional reliance on reductions of an indiscriminate nature and increasing use of earmarks within the DOD budget will damage future military capabilities."

With no Republican doing anything to restore the funding cut from the war-fighting accounts or to stem the record-busting pork parade, you might think some Democrats would step in where McCain and others declined to tread. You’d be mistaken. There was nary a peep of complaint on the Senate floor. Feasting at the pork trough every bit as much as others, Democratic defense leaders such as Hawaii’s Sen. Daniel Inouye, the top Democrat on the Appropriations Committee’s defense subcommittee, spent his time and energy making sure his home state was well taken care of, adding funding for brown tree-snake eradication programs and health-care spending for Hawaii and the Pacific Islands. As far as I could determine from the Congressional Record, committee reports and conversations with former colleagues, others, such as Michigan Sen. Carl Levin, the top Democrat on the Armed Services Committee, did nothing to undo the mess.

As for President Bush and Sens. John Kerry and John Edwards, it’s hard to say whether they are ignorant of the corrosive nature of congressional business as usual on defense, which seems unlikely, or are simply intimidated by the prospect of seriously fighting a system of debased values that sacrifices military readiness for selfish gain. In any case, none of them has made an effort to combat Congress’s feeding frenzy.

And the media? Not for the first time, they were sound asleep. Using members’ ready-for-publication news releases (or anonymous tips from their staffs) and fact sheets from the Appropriations Committee can help a harried journalist meet an impending deadline on long and complex legislation. But only part of the story will be told. Four hundred pages of legalese and small print tables in a bill and committee report can actually make some pretty interesting reading, but apparently no journalist seems to think so. I have looked for but failed to find even a single news article about the raids by the Armed Services and Appropriations committees on funding intended to help the armed forces fight in Iraq and Afghanistan. It’s all there in the fiendish details, but they were ignored.

The consequences are serious. Extraordinarily expensive defense bills pass Congress, and the congressional authors are credited with being pro-defense heavies. Pork-busting reformers augment their already inflated reputations. The troops in the field think Washington is doing its best to help them, and the public believes no stone is left unturned to ensure that the nation’s sons and daughters are being sent to war with all the training and other forms of support we would want for them.

In each case, the reality is quite different. Nonetheless, Congress is content; there’s $8.9 billion in pork to impress the voters back home before the elections, and no one is the wiser about what is really being done to "raise and support armies" and "provide and maintain a navy" — or not.

Winslow Wheeler is a visiting senior fellow at the Center for Defense Information. He contributed an essay on the defense budget to CounterPunch’s new book: Dime’s Worth of Difference. Wheeler’s book, "The Wastrels of Defense: How Congress Sabotages U.S. Security," will be available from the Naval Institute Press in October.

This essay originally appeared in The Washington Post.