Click amount to donate direct to CounterPunch
  • $25
  • $50
  • $100
  • $500
  • $other
  • use PayPal
Keep CounterPunch ad free. Support our annual fund drive today!

Pentagon Pork


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?


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:

2016 Fund Drive
Smart. Fierce. Uncompromised. Support CounterPunch Now!

  • cp-store
  • donate paypal

CounterPunch Magazine


October 24, 2016
John Steppling
The Unwoke: Sleepwalking into the Nightmare
Oscar Ortega
Clinton’s Troubling Silence on the Dakota Access Pipeline
Patrick Cockburn
Aleppo vs. Mosul: Media Biases
John Grant
Humanizing Our Militarized Border
Franklin Lamb
US-led Sanctions Targeting Syria Risk Adjudication as War Crimes
Paul Bentley
There Must Be Some Way Out of Here: the Silence of Dylan
Norman Pollack
Militarism: The Elephant in the Room
Patrick Bosold
Dakota Access Oil Pipeline: Invite CEO to Lunch, Go to Jail
Paul Craig Roberts
Was Russia’s Hesitation in Syria a Strategic Mistake?
Lara Gardner
Why I’m Not Voting
David Swanson
Of All the Opinions I’ve Heard on Syria
Weekend Edition
October 21, 2016
Friday - Sunday
John Wight
Hillary Clinton and the Brutal Murder of Gaddafi
Diana Johnstone
Hillary Clinton’s Strategic Ambition in a Nutshell
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: Trump’s Naked and Hillary’s Dead
John W. Whitehead
American Psycho: Sex, Lies and Politics Add Up to a Terrifying Election Season
Stephen Cooper
Hell on Earth in Alabama: Inside Holman Prison
Patrick Cockburn
13 Years of War: Mosul’s Frightening and Uncertain Future
Rob Urie
Name the Dangerous Candidate
Pepe Escobar
The Aleppo / Mosul Riddle
David Rosen
The War on Drugs is a Racket
Sami Siegelbaum
Once More, the Value of the Humanities
Cathy Breen
“Today Is One of the Heaviest Days of My Life”
Neve Gordon
Israel’s Boycott Hypocrisy
Mark Hand
Of Pipelines and Protest Pens: When the Press Loses Its Shield
Victor Wallis
On the Stealing of U.S. Elections
Michael Hudson
The Return of the Repressed Critique of Rentiers: Veblen in the 21st century Rentier Capitalism
Brian Cloughley
Drumbeats of Anti-Russia Confrontation From Washington to London
Howard Lisnoff
Still Licking Our Wounds and Hoping for Change
Brian Gruber
Iraq: There Is No State
Peter Lee
Trump: We Wish the Problem Was Fascism
Stanley L. Cohen
Equality and Justice for All, It Seems, But Palestinians
Steve Early
In Bay Area Refinery Town: Berniecrats & Clintonites Clash Over Rent Control
Kristine Mattis
All Solutions are Inadequate: Why It Doesn’t Matter If Politicians Mention Climate Change
Peter Linebaugh
Ron Suny and the Marxist Commune: a Note
Andre Vltchek
Sudan, Africa and the Mosaic of Horrors
Keith Binkly
The Russians Have Been Hacking Us For Years, Why Is It a Crisis Now?
Jonathan Cook
Adam Curtis: Another Manager of Perceptions
Ted Dace
The Fall
Sheldon Richman
Come and See the Anarchy Inherent in the System
Susana Hurlich
Hurricane Matthew: an Overview of the Damages in Cuba
Dave Lindorff
Screwing With and Screwing the Elderly and Disabled
Chandra Muzaffar
Cuba: Rejecting Sanctions, Sending a Message
Dennis Kucinich
War or Peace?
Joseph Natoli
Seething Anger in the Post-2016 Election Season
Jack Rasmus
Behind The 3rd US Presidential Debate—What’s Coming in 2017