2009 is an important year for the evolution of pork in defense bills. Having expanded immensely since September 11, 2001, pork has met its first notable challenge. It came from Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, who in April took a stand against some of the lowest of the hanging fruit in the Pentagon’s acquisition budget. Since then, those in Congress who seek to perpetuate the spending – for their home states and districts – on those very systems have been fighting back, some a lot more successfully than others.
The fight is now coming to a head. The last of the four congressional defense committees to act, the Defense Subcommittee of the Senate Appropriations Committee (SAC-D) has reported its version of the 2010 Department of Defense Appropriations bill to the Senate. The bill is now awaiting consideration by the full Senate, later this week.
The bill poses Gates and Obama with a sly and indirect response on some specific pork issues; the president and the secretary may choose not to fight them out with the committee. In other – much more fundamental – ways, the bill confronts them directly, but Gates and Obama appear not to have even noticed, and as a result, they have lost the most important part of the fight.
Earlier in the year, porkers on the Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) attempted to take Gates on frontally. Led by Saxby Chambliss (R-GA), they sought to stuff additional F-22 fighter aircraft down Gates’ throat by mandating seven new ones in the 2010 National Defense Authorization bill. Having provoked Gates and the White House into an open fight, Chambliss was a big loser on July 21 by a vote of 58 to 40.
The members of the House and Senate Appropriations Committees have been far more clever – by not provoking open fights with Gates, and still getting their way.
C-17s Slip Through
The first such example occurred in May on the question of adding more C-17s, which Gates said in April he wanted no more of. The official DOD requirement for 190 aircraft had already been exceeded, there being 205 on order. Nonetheless, the House Appropriations Committee’s Defense Subcommittee (HAC-D) added eight more C-17s (for $2.25 billion) to a supplemental spending bill to fund the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan for the rest of fiscal year 2009. Someone – it is not clear who – convinced Gates that the additional C-17s were needed in Iraq and Afghanistan. He basically waved the aircraft through, permitting his spokesman to endorse them in a public statement saying they were “in the fight” in Southwest Asia.
Whether intended or not, it sent a clear signal: not only was the sluice gate open for more C-17s but also Gates was “negotiable” on the rest of his 50 decisions on problematic weapon programs.
The final version of the 2009 supplemental included all eight of the HAC-D’s additional C-17s, and when the subcommittee met to consider the new 2010 DOD appropriations bill, it added three more. Encountering no reason not to, the SAC-D has upped the ante in its version of the bill to 10 aircraft, costing $2.5 billion.
The Senate appropriators even took Gates on in the matter of his big triumph, the F-22. Unlike Chambliss and his clumsy confrontational approach, they were indirect. They earmarked existing F-22 spending not to crash Gates’ declared US production limit of 187 aircraft, but for America’s allies. Specifically, the SAC-D added a section in the bill’s General Provisions title to say that DOD “may” spend money to “develop a future export version of the F-22A that protects classified and sensitive information, technologies and U.S. warfighting capabilities.”
The provision contained all the qualities that just might enable it to slip by Secretary Gates and yet also keep the F-22 production line open -ultimately not just for US allies but for the US Air Force:
· The “may” language did not confront Gates by imposing the idea on him;
· Making the aircraft available for US allies addressed a general theme President Obama has favored;
· By using existing funding already in the bill ($177 million for modifications and $569 million for research for the F-22 fleet), it didn’t even add spending (right now, at least), and
· Some of the aircraft’s critics, such as Lawrence Korb at the stalwartly pro-Obama Center for American Progress, have even said sales of the F-22 to Japan would make great sense.
If an important ally (like Japan) can be enticed to show palpable interest, Gates could find himself in no position to say, “No.” The program using US dollars to develop declassified techniques and materials – sure to become a considerable added expense – would have to go ahead. (Should Israel express interest, the US-financed nature of the program would be even more assured.) If a buyer were actually secured, the F-22 production line, now scheduled to close in 2011, would necessarily stay open.
Even better, if the new “declassified” techniques found a way to address the serious problems the existing US Air Force version of the aircraft is having with its “stealth” coating, wouldn’t it make the sense to permit the US Air Force to have the new and improved version? Also, if the F-35, which is Gates’ alternative to the F-22, were to encounter even more serious problems in its cost, schedule, and performance (which would surprise nobody), wouldn’t it be great to have an open combat aircraft production line to fill the gap?
All hypothetic, but quite plausible – and very slick.
The Veto-Bait Pork
In addition to more US F-22s, developing a second (alternate) engine for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter and continuing the preposterously expensive VH-71 presidential helicopter have attracted veto threats from the White House. The gauntlet is thrown down; the SAC-D clearly had to recognize that any frontal move in favor of those programs would provoke an open fight with Obama and Gates, very possibly with the same result as with Chambliss.
As with the F-22, the Chairman of the SAC-D, Senator Daniel Inouye (D-HI), is known to support the alternative engine for the F-35. He was expected to include a provision in the bill supporting it, just as the HAC-D had with the addition of $560 million for both development and production. Instead, Inouye’s bill provided no money for the engine.
Similarly, the SAC-D bill did not imitate its House counterpart on the VH-71. Instead of providing $400 million to continue fabrication of five partially built helicopters, Inouye and his subcommittee provided no money.
Is Inouye surrendering to Obama’s and Gates’ wishes on the F-35 engine and the VH-71, as most prognosticators seem to believe, or is he playing a more subtle game?
When he goes to resolve the differences in his bill with the House version in a House-Senate conference committee, Inouye will face the choice of either insisting on the Senate position which ends both programs, or going along with that of the House, which funds both programs.
Which way will he go? Are there any signs? There are indeed. It looks like Senator Inouye is trying to make his bill veto-proof, which also implies he envisions it containing at least one of the veto-bait programs.
Traditionally, the Senate Appropriations Committee has scheduled its activities so that the full Senate debates its DOD Appropriations bill immediately after the committee reports it to the Senate. That way, senators not on the committee do not have a lot of time to draft multiple amendments to encumber the bill with earmarks and policy provisions the committee does not welcome.
But that’s not what is happening this time around. The Committee reported its bill on September 10. Almost two weeks later, it remains undebated, languishing on the Senate Calendar. Word has it among some Senate staff that the reason for the delay is to hold the final version of the bill until later in the month. Then will be the end of the fiscal year, and because the Senate has not passed more than half of the twelve appropriations bills that fund the federal government, there will be a need for an “omnibus” bill to package them altogether and get them passed before the new fiscal year starts on October 1. The DOD Appropriations bill is typically seen as a good vehicle for this mammoth legislation: very few in Congress are willing to tolerate being accused of opposing defense spending bills; incorporating the DOD bill into the Omnibus, let alone using it as the prime mover, helps to ensure passage.
There are also rumors that the DOD Appropriations bill will become a legislative vehicle for other legislation, such as the imminently required bill to extend the debt limit of the entire federal government. In other words, the DOD bill will be transformed into, or made part of, a measure for funding most of the federal government. It will be “must pass” legislation. It will also be veto proof. Senator Inouye will have a clear path to including pretty much anything he wants in the DOD parts of this broader legislation.
The Mother Lode of the Pork System
Inouye’s winning, or even losing, on the F-22, F-35, and VH-71 issues will not determine who wins or loses on the broader war over pork in defense spending. There are other far more important issues about pork than the veto-bait programs that have attracted attention in the media. It is those much more fundamental issues that will determine who is winning or losing the match on pork. On those issues, Gates and the White House are not even putting up a fight.
Beyond the C-17s, the F-22s, the F-35 engine, and the helicopter, the Senate bill is filled with hundreds of small earmarks, the garden variety pork. It is all paid for with a mechanism that runs counter to everything Gates has asserted to be his defense spending priority – it’s at the expense of military readiness to prepare for and fight the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
As counted by Taxpayers for Commonsense, the SAC-D listed 777 earmarks for $2.6 billion in its committee report. That tally does not include some additional pork: $1.7 billion for a DDG-51 destroyer to be built in Pascagoula, MS, home to the SAC-D’s top Republican, Thad Cochran, and $2.5 billion for the ten C-17s mentioned above. It also does not include some other expensive additions, and even some more lesser ones, peppered throughout the bill.
Far more troublesome is how all these earmarks are paid for.
The total spending in the bill is $3.9 billion less than the $629.7 Obama and Gates requested. The committee did not add money to the bill to pay for its billions of dollars for pork, it found offsets in other parts of the bill. One of the accounts the committee raided most frequently to pay for the add-ons was the bill’s “Operation and Maintenance” (O&M) account. That account pays for – among many things – training, weapons maintenance, fuel, spare parts, food, etc.: all the things a military needs most in the midst of a war. There is hardly any more meaningful budgetary expression for support for the wars than this account.
Nevertheless, and without a peep of objection from Gates and Obama, the Senator Inouye and the SAC-D cut the $156.4 billion O&M request by a net $2.4 billion – according to the tables in the committee’s report. In truth, the cuts to the readiness account are larger. Inouye and the Defense Subcommittee peppered several O&M sub-accounts with at least 47 earmarks costing $163 million. This, in effect, reduces the money available in the bill for real readiness by simply spending it elsewhere.
Inflation and Other Scams
Inouye and the SAC-D also cut O&M with provisions not appearing in the O&M title of the bill but in the General Provisions title. For example –
Sec. 8091 in General Provisions reduced O&M across-the-boards by $294 million, based on completely unspecified and unexplained “revised economic assumptions.” (Other titles were cut by an additional $577 million.)
An inquiry to the committee revealed that the justification for this cut was a new estimate that future inflation would be lower than projected earlier, and, thus, the money could be cut with no reduction in purchasing power. The rationale was completely specious: the estimates from the Congressional Budget Office, which are the data the committee is mandated to use, shows future inflation to be higher than previously expected. Specifically, CBO’s economic forecast last March anticipated a .8 percent increase in the future GDP price index; this past August, CBO predicted a 1.1 percent increase. If one seeks to trust economists’ prediction for such future trends, as clearly the SAC-D purports to, instead of money being cut from the O&M budget, it should be added!
Section 8100 reduces Air Force O&M by $500 million, justified as “excess cash” in Working Capital Funds.
Working Capital Funds are simply amounts of money sloshing around inside the Pentagon’s as one entity pays another for goods and services, such as maintenance and supplies. Without the committee’s releasing a competent study of whether such a huge amount of money is truly excess to needs, this reduction must be considered unsubstantiated.
There are also other sections in General Provisions that transfer or use money in the O&M budget from non-O&M purposes. In each case, the committee failed to provide any meaningful explanation.
The committee’s whacking at the O&M budget is nauseating. In-air Air Force and Navy pilot training hours for combat aircraft are at historic lows; training time in the Army, for example for tank crews, is lower today than during the low readiness Clinton years. Units reporting for duty in Iraq and Afghanistan have been publicly reported to be leaving the US with low readiness ratings. In each service, the backlog for maintenance and repairs remains huge. It is not as if the money could not be put to high priority use if it were left in the O&M budget. Instead, however, something in excess of $3 billion was extracted out of the O&M budget – for the purpose of offsetting (that is, paying for) pork.
Raiding Also War Spending
And, there’s more. The SAC-D cut O&M also in the “Overseas Contingency Operations” (OCO) title of the bill that more directly funds the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The $81 billion request from Obama and Gates for O&M for US military operations in the wars was cut by $655 million, and another $1.715 billion was cut from the proposed military aid to Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan.
The committee also added some goodies (major hardware spending) to the procurement account in the OCO title: $512 million for 9 F/A-18E/F aircraft, which are unlikely to be built in time to have an impact in the wars, and $1.2 billion for unrequested M-ATV armored vehicles. As with the base bill, the committee did not add money to the requested level of spending for these (and other) add-ons; they used offsets, including the cuts in US O&M and for allies to keep the total spending below the requested amount.
These raids on what Gates and others should regard as priority spending in the defense budget are nothing new; they have been going on for years. They almost make Gates’ and Obama’s objections to the veto-bait programs (the F-35 engine and the VH-71) look superfluous.
Gates and Obama may or may not win on the systems that have attracted a veto threat. But even if they do win each of those battles, they still lose on the broader pork war. Billions of dollars for earmarks for large and small programs will remain in the defense budget, and they will be paid for by reducing spending in other parts of the bill, most notably the account that supports key elements of military readiness.
By not objecting, Gates and Obama will have succumbed to, even enabled, it all.
These behaviors have been occurring for years, and still no one does a thing about them. Until someone does, the pork system on Capitol Hill, and in the executive branch, will remain alive and well. The trophy for 2009 will go to Senator Inouye and the other congressional porkers. They may have lost a few games, but they won the match.
WINSLOW T. WHEELER is the Director of the Straus Military Reform Project at the Center for Defense Information. He is also the editor of the anthology “America’s Defense Meltdown: Military Reform for President Obama and the New Congress.”
 The Air Force’s C-17 transport, made by Boeing, is no bargain for those who seek to support the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan with long range, air transport. At $327 million per copy (counting all procurement and development costs), it delivers too little cargo at too much cost. A more fuel-efficient Boeing 747-8 freighter costs 10% less and hauls 85% more cargo for 85% longer range. The Air Force claims that the C-17 was designed to be able to land on “unprepared” landing strips. That claimed ability is rarely, if ever used, but it imposed major payload and cost penalties on the design. When it does deliver to “unprepared” landing strips, it takes weeks to prepare the landing strip! It virtually never directly supports troops in contact with the enemy, such as those in isolated bases in Afghanistan, and even Iraq. In short, the C-17 is no bargain either as a strategic or a tactical air-lifter. Gates was entirely right to seek the end of its production.
 See Section 8056 of the bill; find the bill at the GPO website.
 See “Multiple Benefits if Japan Buys the F-22,” Lawrence Korb and Peter Juul, Atlanta Journal Constitution, September 3, 2009, at http://www.ajc.com/opinion/multiple-benefits-if-japan-130789.html.
 On August 17 at the Veterans of Foreign Wars in Phoenix, President Obama promised an end to “the special interests and their exotic projects that are years behind schedule and billions over budget,” and he reaffirmed that he is killing off the F-22 fighter, the second F-35 engine, and the presidential helicopter. He finished saying “And if Congress sends me a defense bill loaded with this kind of waste, I will veto it.”
 The SAC-D was hardly alone in raiding O&M to pay for pork. The SASC, HASC, and HAC-D did also; the only variations are in the details. Find a discussion of the SASC/HASC/HAC-C raids in an information paper at http://www.cdi.org/friendlyversion/printversion.cfm?documentID=4535.
 47 is an incomplete listing of the earmarks in the O&M account. It is simply the total number of earmarks listed at the end of the committee report, as required by Senate rules; see pp. 274-295 of the committee report at http://frwebgate.access.gpo.gov/cgi-bin/getdoc.cgi?dbname=111_cong_reports&docid=f:sr074.111.pdf.
Other, unlisted earmarks occur in other parts of the committee report. For example, there is $16 million added for an “Asia Pacific Regional Initiative,” very probably with Senator Inouye’s full support.