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AWOL: McCain and the Democrats

The Pork War

by WINSLOW T. WHEELER

It was business as usual last month as the Senate loaded pork into the spending bill President George W. Bush requested for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The bill that the Senate passed on April 21 was crammed with essential war-fighting treasures like $500,000 to study wind energy in North and South Dakota, $20 million for a fish hatchery in Fort Peck, Mont., $26 million to move nuclear materials out of New Mexico into Nevada, and $4 million for West Virginia’s Upper Tygart Watershed Project.

But the bill was not routine. It signaled the Senate’s descent to new depths, for these measures were not added to the annual defense authorizations and appropriations bills, but to a so-called emergency supplemental. Worse, some of these irrelevant items actually were included at the expense of legitimate military operational needs.

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., a self-described "pork buster," condemned the legislative riders and listed the dubious projects, promising to impede the pork parade by posing parliamentary objections to senators’ requests for "unanimous consent" to accelerate the adoption of their amendments.

Yet, as happened before, McCain failed to keep his promise, and the amendments he criticized were adopted at warp speed using – you guessed it – unanimous consent. "Pork buster?" I think not. Try "pork enabler."

It was the president’s fourth such submission to pay for the fighting since the United States invaded Iraq in March 2003. These requests are "emergency" only because Bush seeks them at the last possible minute to conjure what passes for fast action in Congress, and because he likes to dodge tallying up the costs when he submits his regular annual budget.

However, it is notable that until now, Congress has been remarkably disciplined at keeping the junk out of the war supplementals. In the first three, one had to search long and hard to find special interest running amok.
Plunging to new depths for duplicity is a description of the bill from a staff spokesperson for the Senate Appropriations Committee. As noted in the April 17 Los Angeles Times, we are told "any amendments came as an afterthought and did not take away money from the troops."

Afterthought? According to the Congressional Budget Office, the amendments added by the Senate cost $1.2 billion.

It’s not just the casual dismissal of the cost, but another aspect the press has universally missed. The bill reported to the Senate by the Appropriations Committee cut $1.5 billion from the president’s request. To effect that reduction, the committee cut more than $600 million out of the Operation and Maintenance title of the bill, $500 million of it in Army operations for fighting the war. That allowed the addition of more pork and irrelevancies while still keeping the bill below Bush’s initial request.

Worse, some amendments did not add spending but simply gobbled up funds the president intended for the troops and other wartime uses to pay for the junk. In this light, consider the assertion that the amendments "did not take away money from the troops." Next we shall hear a pious declamation that the Senate exercised restraint by keeping the bill below the president’s version.

There are reasons for this deteriorating behavior.

First, it should be noted that the Senate is under new control. Today’s majority leader, Bill Frist, R-Tenn., attempted no meaningful restraint over his rampaging colleagues. (He did act to shut down a filibuster on the emergency supplemental, but one wasn’t occurring). He was likely more focused on the controversy over his videotaped appearance before religious conservatives, and advancing his presidential ambitions and promising to help end Democratic filibusters against Bush’s judicial nominees. In short, he was letting one form of Senate excess slide while he was advancing another.

Also worthy of mention is the Senate Appropriations Committee’s new chairman, Thad Cochran, R-Miss. I never thought that someone could outdo former Appropriations Committee Chairman Ted Stevens for porking up appropriations bills, but Cochran has put himself at the summit of that tall mountain.

Stevens doubled and redoubled the pork in defense appropriations bills, now at over $9 billion per annum, but he did at least insist that the war supplementals be kept clean. No more. Unwilling to wait for the next defense spending bill in May, Cochran led the way into the trough with a provision guaranteeing Mississippi’s Pascagoula shipyard work on the Navy’s new DD(X) destroyer by prohibiting competition. He also packed in a sewage treatment plant for DeSoto County, Miss, for $55 million.

Credit also the Senate’s Democrats. Not one had the minimal character or political acumen of pork enabler McCain to at least criticize the pork fest. The thought that one of them could make him–or herself a real "pork buster" by genuinely blocking the glut seems to have utterly escaped them.

Republicans and Democrats in the Senate have now added emergency war supplementals to their long list of legislative vehicles exploited to advance their personal politics with the voters back home. While touting their support for the troops in combat and their families, the Senate is literally advocating raids on war-fighting accounts to pay for pork.

Pending resolution of the fight over filibusters and judges, the Senate is scheduled to debate the new 2006 National Defense Authorization Act this week. That creates an opportunity to reverse the explosion of pork spending and selfishness that has characterized Senate behavior since Sept. 11, 2001. However, it would also require senators to match their deeds to their words.

WINSLOW T. 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," is published by the Naval Institute Press.

This column originally appeared in DefenseNews.