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Inside the Pentagon’s Pork Factory

Many people think “pork” in defense bills is something Congress dreams up and adds over the protests of Department of Defense (DoD) officials. Not so.

The thousands of dubious-sounding local projects that end up in defense legislation most commonly result from a rotating catchall that starts and ends with someone in a suit or a uniform in DoD. Senators and representatives are just the errand-boys.

I should know: During most of the last 30 years, I was involved in the Capitol Hill pork process, one way or another, up to my eyeballs.

As the fiscal 2004 defense authorization and appropriations bills wend their way through Congress, a look inside the process may prove instructive. But parents of small children are advised not to let their kids keep on reading. This is not a subject for the very young or the squeamish.

This year, as always, the phones of congressional defense staffers have been ringing since January. Most of the calls are not about the war, or even complaints about jet noise at the local Air Force base. It’s the nice lobbyist from Boeing, or the state university, or the local DoD lab, or some other smiling supplicant, including some in uniform, who wants a piece of the defense budget. If the nice lobbyist isn’t from DoD, he has probably been talking to contacts in DoD. He has some suggestions for how the senator can help constituents and, of course, the nice lobbyist.

If he is a regular on Capitol Hill, and especially if he’s wearing a uniform, then the nice lobbyist may not need to do much more than say what he’s after when he contacts the senator’s staff. If the supplicant is a professor after a university research project, the cost might be only a few million or so; if he’s a general looking for a VIP transport aircraft (a perennial favorite), the price could be tens of millions.

However, if the importuning one is a newcomer, then he may need to come in and brief the staffer. If the morsel being sought has significance, he may also have to meet the boss.

Not to worry. If he gets into the senator’s office, the senator will be very accommodating after just a few questions (unless the lobbyist really blows the presentation).

Of course, there is the odd request that is so outrageous that it could be an embarrassment to any member of Congress sponsoring it. Most Senate offices are quite wary of people they sense will get them into trouble. They will escort a detected loon or sleaze quickly, but politely, out the door, at least most of the time.

Loons and slimeballs notwithstanding, the number of requests that are turned down can absolutely, positively be counted on the fingers of one hand. Far more proposed increases to the budget are embraced than are rejected.

For fiscal 2003, I prepared, as I did each year, a spreadsheet to help me keep track of the requests my boss, Sen. Pete Domenici (R- N.M.) wanted to add to the defense appropriations bill. It went on for 23 pages covering 88 items before I left the job last June.

Each member then sends this “pork list” to the chairman of the Appropriations defense subcommittee with a very-repeat, very- respectful cover letter.

A few weeks pass. Then subcommittee staffers hand out envelopes containing the fate of thousands of requests. As staffers who helped write the pork lists anxiously go over their results, the subcommittee staff explains that two factors influenced how well senators did: 1) the availability of funds, and 2) whether the senator did or did not vote for the committee’s last defense bill.

One staff director was often blunt. If you helped us, we helped you, was his frequent message.

Before the envelopes are handed out, though, the defense subcommittee staff has spent weeks communicating with DoD project managers, deputy assistant secretaries, base commanders, and regional and service commanders asking if they want what is being requested.

If the DoD contact says no, the project is pretty much a dead duck. If the answer is yes, then the project only has to pass the test of how well behaved the sponsoring senator has been in the eyes of the “old bulls” on the Appropriations panel. It’s very much the same story with the “authorizers” on the Senate Armed Services Committee.

Again, most pork is spending that someone in DoD wanted to include in the original defense budget. Having failed to pass muster in the official budget review, the DoD sponsor, or his industry or university or contractor surrogate, uses the back door in Congress to clutch onto the additional money needed.

Getting a hold of the lucre depends on the answer the Appropriations or Armed Services staffer hears from the DoD manager the staffer has contacted about the project.

And, yes, the staffer may very well be asking the same civilian bureaucrat, or uniformed “milicrat,” who got the back-door process started by making, or provoking, the original phone call or visit to the senator’s office.

In DoD, there are more catches than just No. 22.

It’s a process that makes everybody happy: The DoD manager finally gets the spending he wants, the nice lobbyist has completed his mission, the “old bull” senator gets to dispense goodies, the staffer gets to play power broker, and the recipient senators broadcast how effective they’ve been at bringing home the bacon, especially around election time.

Of course, the president has seen his budget converted into an ever expanding money-spending machine. And the defense secretary has been circumvented by his own bureaucracy, which has wedged back into the budget all manner of stuff the secretary thought he had killed.

Recent defense secretaries, though, including the current one, seem to have no problem with this. Last year, Donald Rumsfeld sat idly by as his own bureaucracy shredded his defense budget. This year should be no exception.

WINSLOW T. WHEELER is a senior fellow at the Center for Defense Information, where he is writing a book on Congress and national security. Wheeler previously worked in the Senate and the General Accounting Office.

 

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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.

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