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.

 

 

More articles by:

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.

November 20, 2017
T.J. Coles
Doomsday Scenarios: the UK’s Hair-Raising Admissions About the Prospect of Nuclear War and Accident
Peter Linebaugh
On the 800th Anniversary of the Charter of the Forest
Sheldon Richman
Assertions, Facts and CNN
Ben Debney
Plebiscites: Why Stop at One?
LV Filson
Yemen’s Collective Starvation: Where Money Can’t Buy Food, Water or Medicine
Thomas Knapp
Impeachment Theater, 2017 Edition
Binoy Kampmark
Trump in Asia
Curtis FJ Doebbler
COP23: Truth Without Consequences?
Louisa Willcox
Obesity in Bears: Vital and Beautiful
Deborah James
E-Commerce and the WTO
Ann Garrison
Burundi Defies the Imperial Criminal Court: an Interview with John Philpot
Robert Koehler
Trapped in ‘a Man’s World’
Stephen Cooper
Wiping the Stain of Capital Punishment Clean
Weekend Edition
November 17, 2017
Friday - Sunday
Paul Street
Thank an Anti-War Veteran
Andrew Levine
What’s Wrong With Bible Thumpers Nowadays?
Jeffrey St. Clair - Alexander Cockburn
The CIA’s House of Horrors: the Abominable Dr. Gottlieb
Wendy Wolfson – Ken Levy
Why We Need to Take Animal Cruelty Much More Seriously
Mike Whitney
Brennan and Clapper: Elder Statesmen or Serial Fabricators?
David Rosen
Of Sex Abusers and Sex Offenders
Ryan LaMothe
A Christian Nation?
Dave Lindorff
Trump’s Finger on the Button: Why No President Should Have the Authority to Launch Nuclear Weapons
W. T. Whitney
A Bizarre US Pretext for Military Intrusion in South America
Deepak Tripathi
Sex, Lies and Incompetence: Britain’s Ruling Establishment in Crisis 
Howard Lisnoff
Who You’re Likely to Meet (and Not Meet) on a College Campus Today
Roy Morrison
Trump’s Excellent Asian Adventure
John W. Whitehead
Financial Tyranny
Ted Rall
How Society Makes Victimhood a No-Win Proposition
Jim Goodman
Stop Pretending the Estate Tax has Anything to do With Family Farmers
Thomas Klikauer
The Populism of Germany’s New Nazis
Murray Dobbin
Is Trudeau Ready for a Middle East war?
Jeiddy Martínez Armas
Firearm Democracy
Jill Richardson
Washington’s War on Poor Grad Students
Ralph Nader
The Rule of Power Over the Rule of Law
Justin O'Hagan
Capitalism Equals Peace?
Matthew Stevenson
Into Africa: From the Red Sea to Nairobi
Geoff Dutton
The Company We Sadly Keep
Evan Jones
The Censorship of Jacques Sapir, French Dissident
Linn Washington Jr.
Meek Moment Triggers Demands for Justice Reform
Gerry Brown
TPP, Indo Pacific, QUAD: What’s Next to Contain China’s Rise?
Robert Fisk
The Exile of Saad Hariri
Romana Rubeo - Ramzy Baroud
Anti-BDS Laws and Pro-Israeli Parliament: Zionist Hasbara is Winning in Italy
Robert J. Burrowes
Why are Police in the USA so Terrified?
Chuck Collins
Stop Talking About ‘Winners and Losers’ From Corporate Tax Cuts
Ron Jacobs
Private Property Does Not Equal Freedom
Kollibri terre Sonnenblume
Mass Shootings, Male Toxicity and their Roots in Agriculture
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail