FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

Pentagon Pork

by WINSLOW WHEELER

Going through the lists of pork in defense appropriations bills, it is quite easy to pick examples that appear foolish on their own face or that obviously have no proper place in the defense budget: museums, bicentennial Lewis and Clark celebrations, and breast and prostate cancer research are typical examples. However, such items that appear to be both defense-related and even useful also occur. Surely, soldiers in the mountains of Afghanistan have a need for the “fleece insulated liners” identified in an earlier tutorial (#3A: “Pork: Where is it?”). Just as clearly, the $1.7 million addition for a “Program Increase” for the “Joint Stand-Off Weapon” (page 282) may be justifiable, as perhaps is an additional $5.5 million for the “Walter Reed Amputee Center.”

Is the latter pork?

Of course, it is. The real problem is that nobody knows the real merit of these and other earmarks, even when they have relevant and useful sounding names. For example, could the $5.5 million for the Walter Reed Amputee Center actually be for a new cafeteria there, or is it for proven-quality wounded veterans’ care? You are not likely to find a meaningful answer by reading the “Joint Explanatory Statement” for the 2006 DOD Appropriations Act or, for that matter, any other report from the House or Senate Appropriations Committee.

The real problem with “pork” is that no one knows whether it is good or bad. Virtually none of these congressional add-ons are put through a rigorous, even competent, review process by any objective entity. For example:

The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) is not asked to review the most likely annual cost of these items, let alone multi-year costs, if any.

The Government Accountability Office (GAO), or any other objective party, is almost never asked to review the need for the item or whether it would adequately meet an existing need.

If the item is the subject of any questions in the Defense Appropriations subcommittees or the Armed Services committees of the House and Senate, the inquiry is usually perfunctory, if not a set-up worked out by the inquiring member’s staff and a cooperative witness–with the questions and answers all predetermined before the hearing.

In those rare cases where the item might actually pass muster on the above criteria, no one in Congress is interested in pitting their home-district contractor (and potential campaign contributor) against manufacturers in other states or districts in a free market competition for the contract. After all, it is hardly the point of the exercise to get the business for someone else’s political district.
In short, pork is not necessarily “bad stuff” crammed into the defense budget by Congress; it is unknown stuff. Its cost and need are only dimly known, if at all, and effectiveness compared to competitors is completely unexplored. The worst part of the pork process is that no one has established whether any specific earmark is junk or very much needed in even larger amounts.

Congressional add-ons are included in the defense budget, not because a case for them has been made, but because someone wants them.

The vetting process

Each year, members of Congress send the appropriations and Armed Services Committees several thousands of requests for earmarks. Only a fraction is approved. So what, then, is the vetting process? Who decides and what is the criteria?

There are two major filters and they’re both quite simple.

First, in the Senate, for example, if a member votes against a defense appropriations bill, he or she can expect little help on pork requests from the top Republican and Democrat on the Defense Appropriations Subcommittee (Sens. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska., and Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii). Without their joint (“bipartisan”) approval, you can absolutely-positively forget about your “pork item,” whether it is a useless memorial park upgrade or an effective new bandage for wounded soldiers and Marines. When the author worked as a Senate staffer, the top “clerk” on the Defense Appropriations Subcommittee for Stevens repeatedly made it quite clear with statements like: “If you helped us, we did our best to help you. If you didn’t vote for our bill last year, you shouldn’t expect much help from us this year.”

However, even Stevens, who possesses a temper that is infamous on Capitol Hill, does not want to irritate most other senators by saying no too often to their requests. And yet, if he said OK most of the time, the pork bill in DOD appropriations bills would be much, much larger. How can he and Inouye cut down the requests and still stay on the right side of their colleagues?

Simple.

The staff of the Senate Defense Appropriations Subcommittee simply calls the Defense Department. They don’t call Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, or even one of his senior managers. Instead, they call mid-level bureaucrats who oversee specific programs and ask them if they want the add-on that a particular member has requested. If the answer is yes, the add-on will almost certainly get at least some money (unless the requester flunks test #1 above). If the DOD contact says no, the item will almost certainly get nothing.

This vetting process has lots of advantages. Members of Congress are virtually extorted into supporting defense appropriations bills. Also, in those numerous cases when an item flunks test #2 with the DOD, the appropriators can, and do, blame the Pentagon rather than making themselves be the object of resentment and retaliation from disappointed pork-hunting senators.

It all makes for an orderly, manageable system where everybody is satisfied ­ at least everybody in Congress; soldiers, Marines, etc., are clearly not a primary consideration.

In Conclusion

So, if you think “pork” in defense bills is stupid stuff that members of Congress stuff down the unwilling throat of the Defense Department, you’d be quite wrong. It’s worse than that; “pork” is unevaluated spending that Congress approves for its own membership on a bipartisan basis with the acquiescence of unnamed bureaucrats in the Pentagon. It is literally a step into the known in regards to cost, quality, and need.

Winslow T. Wheeler is the Director of the Straus Military Reform Project at the Center for Defense Information. He spent 31 years working for US Senators from both parties and the Government Accountability Office. He contributed an essay on the defense budget to CounterPunch’s new book: Dime’s Worth of Difference. Wheeler’s new book, “The Wastrels of Defense: How Congress Sabotages U.S. Security,” is published by the Naval Institute Press.

 

 

Winslow T. Wheeler is the Director of the Straus Military Reform Project at the Project on Government Oversight.  He spent 31 years working for the Government Accountability Office and both Republican and Democratic Senators on national security issues.

More articles by:
Weekend Edition
May 27, 2016
Friday - Sunday
John Pilger
Silencing America as It Prepares for War
Rob Urie
By the Numbers: Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump are Fringe Candidates
Paul Street
Feel the Hate
Daniel Raventós - Julie Wark
Basic Income Gathers Steam Across Europe
Andrew Levine
Hillary’s Gun Gambit
Jeffrey St. Clair
Hand Jobs: Heidegger, Hitler and Trump
S. Brian Willson
Remembering All the Deaths From All of Our Wars
Dave Lindorff
With Clinton’s Nixonian Email Scandal Deepening, Sanders Must Demand Answers
Pete Dolack
Millions for the Boss, Cuts for You!
Peter Lee
To Hell and Back: Hiroshima and Nagasaki
Gunnar Westberg
Close Calls: We Were Much Closer to Nuclear Annihilation Than We Ever Knew
Karl Grossman
Long Island as a Nuclear Park
Binoy Kampmark
Sweden’s Assange Problem: The District Court Ruling
Robert Fisk
Why the US Dropped Its Demand That Assad Must Go
Martha Rosenberg – Ronnie Cummins
Bayer and Monsanto: a Marriage Made in Hell
Brian Cloughley
Pivoting to War
Stavros Mavroudeas
Blatant Hypocrisy: the Latest Late-Night Bailout of Greece
Arun Gupta
A War of All Against All
Dan Kovalik
NPR, Yemen & the Downplaying of U.S. War Crimes
Randy Blazak
Thugs, Bullies, and Donald J. Trump: The Perils of Wounded Masculinity
Murray Dobbin
Are We Witnessing the Beginning of the End of Globalization?
Daniel Falcone
Urban Injustice: How Ghettos Happen, an Interview with David Hilfiker
Gloria Jimenez
In Honduras, USAID Was in Bed with Berta Cáceres’ Accused Killers
Kent Paterson
The Old Braceros Fight On
Lawrence Reichard
The Seemingly Endless Indignities of Air Travel: Report from the Losing Side of Class Warfare
Peter Berllios
Bernie and Utopia
Stan Cox – Paul Cox
Indonesia’s Unnatural Mud Disaster Turns Ten
Linda Pentz Gunter
Obama in Hiroshima: Time to Say “Sorry” and “Ban the Bomb”
George Souvlis
How the West Came to Rule: an Interview with Alexander Anievas
Julian Vigo
The Government and Your i-Phone: the Latest Threat to Privacy
Stratos Ramoglou
Why the Greek Economic Crisis Won’t be Ending Anytime Soon
David Price
The 2016 Tour of California: Notes on a Big Pharma Bike Race
Dmitry Mickiewicz
Barbarous Deforestation in Western Ukraine
Rev. William Alberts
The United Methodist Church Up to Its Old Trick: Kicking the Can of Real Inclusion Down the Road
Patrick Bond
Imperialism’s Junior Partners
Mark Hand
The Trouble with Fracking Fiction
Priti Gulati Cox
Broken Green: Two Years of Modi
Marc Levy
Sitrep: Hometown Unwelcomes Vietnam Vets
Lorenzo Raymond
Why Nonviolent Civil Resistance Doesn’t Work (Unless You Have Lots of Bombs)
Ed Kemmick
New Book Full of Amazing Montana Women
Michael Dickinson
Bye Bye Legal High in Backwards Britain
Missy Comley Beattie
Wanted: Daddy or Mommy in Chief
Ed Meek
The Republic of Fear
Charles R. Larson
Russian Women, Then and Now
David Yearsley
Elgar’s Hegemony: the Pomp of Empire
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail