The Other Mess in Congress

The extremists of the right are surely rubbing their hands with glee and the far left wringing its in anguish over the prospect of the president’s agenda for his second term. There is every likelihood the partisans in Congress will drown out those few in the middle of the political spectrum and take the nation further down the road of exclusionary political agendas and gridlock.

That’s how it looks for domestic issues like tax reform and Supreme Court nominations. For national security issues, the prognosis is different: debates riddled with hectoring, finger-pointing, and obstructionism would be an improvement. On the defense budget and the war in Iraq, Congress, where I worked over three decades for senators from both parties, has settled itself into a universally adopted mode of behavior that threatens U.S. national security at its core.

For starters, both Democrats and Republicans have become obsessed with adding to defense bills spending projects in their home states ­ such as museums, parks, and gold mines ­ best known as pork. Just a few months after the September 11 attacks, Congress larded up the fiscal year 2002 national security appropriations legislation with almost $4 billion with such junk.

For the new fiscal year 2005 defense appropriations, now law, Congress upped the butcher’s bill to $8.9 billion, adding ­ for example ­ more museums, a biathlon trail, and an upgraded parade ground at a closed military base.

Worse still is how Congress pays for this stuff. Instead of adding money, senators and congressmen and women from both parties raid the budget accounts that pay for military personnel, procurement, research and development, and ­ worst of all ­ operations and maintenance (O&M). Specifically, the 2005 appropriations bill looted over $2 billion from the “O&M” account to help pay for Congress’ latest pork. O&M also supports spare parts, training, weapons maintenance and many other items we need more of in a war, not less.

The U.S. Senate is specifically designed to enable a minority, even one or two senators, to shove the body into parliamentary agony unless or until the obstreperous members are accommodated. Using “dilatory” tactics against pork-infested defense bills would put Congress’ grunters on notice their behavior has gone over the edge and must change. Sadly, no member from either party or any ideology has taken any of the many steps available, and the prospects any will are dim.

Moreover, neither supporters nor critics of the war in Iraq have shown the slightest interest in finding out what is actually going on. Just before the war, in a February 2003 hearing, the Senate Armed Services Committee pathetically accepted the glib assurance of Gen. Richard Myers, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, that the troops were “absolutely” ready for war in Iraq.

Not a single probing question was asked about potential shortages of materiel for the troops. Since then, serious deficiencies in body armor and armor for Humvees and trucks became painfully obvious. While Congress today belatedly scurries to address that problem, reports of serious shortages in Sincgars radios, M-2 and other machine guns, M-16 rifles, M-4 carbines emerge go unaddressed. Congress’ all important function of performing “oversight” ­ that is, knowing what is going on inside agencies like the Defense Department ­ is better described as “overlooking.”

Finally, a visit to C-SPAN to review Congress’ deliberations on national security reveals not debate but its absence.

In June 2004, when the Senate added $25 billion to the defense budget to pay for the war in Iraq, senators discussing the issue spent their time exchanging pleasantries about each other but not about how the $25 billion they were adding for October was needed right away and in any case would too soon run out. Now, we know as much as $70 billion more is needed and the initial $25 billion may be gone well before the President gets around to asking for it. With a “lame duck” Congress now upon us, there is opportunity to make good the omission, but the subject is not even likely to come up as senators and congressmen rush to adjourn for the holidays.

Instead of the lively back and forth, sometimes partisan, sometimes statesmanlike, that used to characterize its deliberations, there are no real debates in the modern Congress. Instead, where they still call themselves “the world greatest deliberative body,” senators march themselves into the Senate chamber, clutching staff-authored speeches or talking points, deliver their scripted remarks, and leave. It is speeches seriatim, not a debate. And, because so few have done their homework, the substance is as thin as a willowy reed.

On defense subjects, both parties are obsessed with pork; liberals and conservatives overlook oversight, and nothing is seriously debated by anyone.

The strident, partisan argumentation and parliamentary obstructionism that burdens domestic issues would literally be an improvement.

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.


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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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