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Pentagon Pork: How to Eliminate It

To eliminate pork, one must first understand what it is. As discussed in “Pork: What is it?,”[1] pork’s most prominent characteristics are its unknown cost and value to U.S. national defense, and the fact that there is no effort in Congress to ensure due diligence in providing the goods or services in question. Pork is acquired through an opaque process that seeks to operate in the shadows of government with as little explanation and evaluation as possible to ensure that the intended recipient gets the goodies.

How not to end pork

Unfortunately, however, reducing pork by simply illuminating and explaining it has been an ineffective technique. For years Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., has given excellent and informative speeches about earmarks in defense, and other, appropriations bills. The result has been an increase of them, especially in defense bills. Despite McCain’s and a few others’ speeches, pork in defense appropriations bills has increased from $7.2 billion in the FY 2002 DOD Appropriations Act, to $8.5 billion in 2004, to $11.1 billion in 2006.

In the Senate, members readily understand the difference between giving a speech about a problem as opposed to taking action against it. The Senate is an institution specifically designed to permit members in the minority, even a single senator, to throw the body into parliamentary fits if the member is not accommodated. [2]

It is here that senators who describe themselves as “pork busters” convey a silent but well understood message. Talk without commensurate action — in an institution where that action can readily be carried out, as is frequently the case by other senators on other issues — conveys an implicit message: nothing untoward is going to happen to the perpetrators of the objected to behavior if all they have to endure is a 20-minute speech. Moreover, if the perpetrators perceive their obnoxious behavior to be in their political interest, they will continue and even expand the activities, as has, indeed, been the case. It can get even worse if the member making objections issues threats to take real action and then fails to do so.

On Dec. 9, 1998, McCain wrote to Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, then chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee and one of the Senate’s most aggressive seekers of extraneous earmarks for his home state. The letter was also signed by Sen. Chuck Robb, D-Va., and Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Nev.; it stated the signers would “employ all legislative tactics at our disposal, consistent with the rules of the Senate, to stop wasteful defense spending once and for all.” [3] That was parliamentary lingo for a threatened filibuster against any future defense appropriations bill riddled with pork.

The filibuster never happened, and in the subsequent DOD appropriations bill, Stevens’ increased the pork.

The question must be asked, by just talking about pork and not taking meaningful action in an institution like the Senate, are these “pork busters” obstructing pork or enabling it?

Congress’ newest fad

With the double whammy of scandals involving Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham, R-Calif., and several other members of Congress connected to the confessed felon-lobbyist Jack Abramoff, there is a whole new crop of representatives and senators stating their opposition to “earmarking.” Beyond their newly embraced rhetoric, the seriousness of their conversion can be discerned not just by their taking action, but by the nature of the action they take.

Some proposals seek to change only the location of pork in Congress’ paperwork. For example, in his Wall Street Journal op-ed piece, a candidate to replace indicted Rep. Tom Delay, R-Texas, as majority leader, Rep. John Boehner, R-Ohio, proposes that earmarks should be permitted only in the text of legislation, not in committee and conference reports. [4] Perhaps the embarrassment of a few thousand earmarks in the text of a public law, rather than in a congressional report, will deter some members of Congress, but probably not most. And, the tarnish of pork items in public laws is sure to be burnished completely off in the future, especially in election years, as members scramble for credit for bringing back the bacon to the home state or district.

For other proposed reforms, standards are suggested, but specifics are lacking. Moreover, many such proposals can be an open invitation to the same types of loopholes Congress adds to laws when members want to give themselves escape hatches.[5]

What is needed is a process where those seeking to advance their vested interest are not in control of events.

A simple but difficult solution

Recalling the nature of pork, that it is of an unknown quality intended for a specific recipient of unknown worthiness, the solution is to impose due diligence on the process. In other words, each congressional earmark for additional spending in the defense budget should be the subject of the following:

1. An estimate of the cost from the Congressional Budget Office (CBO). The estimate should include both the first year and the next five. An objective assessment (i.e., not one from the contractor or other advocates) of the cost, including whether there is a camel attached to that nose under the tent, is needed.

2. An evaluation by the Government Accountability Office (GAO), or another reputable evaluation entity with no contract relationship with any defense program, on the effectiveness and appropriateness of the proposed spending.

3. A written statement on the desirability of the earmark from the manager in DOD, whether civilian or military, who would oversee implementation of the project. The intent of this requirement is to put on the public record DOD program managers who today circumvent the authority of the Office of the Secretary of Defense, the Office of Management and Budget, and the White House by quietly agreeing to more money for their projects, or to start new projects, without authorization from their own hierarchy. [6]

4. Detailed explanation in committee reports and conference reports of the nature of each earmark, its short and long term costs, and its worth as identified by GAO and CBO, together with the identity of any member of Congress seeking the earmark.

5. A requirement that any earmark that makes it through this process can only be awarded to a contractor after complete and open nation-wide contract competition.

Some, probably many, in Congress will oppose these suggestions; clearly they would subvert the intent of many members to steer government spending toward selected interests for purposes that may or may not advance national security. However, were there to be in Congress, especially the Senate, members who seek genuine reform, there are tools at their disposal to help them impose their will. Senate rules have been specifically designed to assist them in this regard; all that is needed is the will to do so.

It would likely not be a pretty fight, but it would definitely be worth watching. And it would help the country separate the real reformers from the rest.

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.

[1] To review this previous tutorial, it can be found at www.cdi.org/smrp.

2] Beyond the well known filibuster, any member can impose numerous roadblocks to the passage of legislation he or she objects to. These motions include points of order established by Senate and Budget Act rules, various “dilatory” actions ­ such as “cloture calls” (which amount to attendance calls on the Senate floor that can take 40 minutes or more for each) ­ and even requiring that every word of a bill be read out loud by a Senate clerk, even if the bill is thousands of pages long.

[3] Letter to the Honorable Ted Stevens,” December 9, 19998, signed by Senators McCain, Robb, and Hagel, p. 2. Senator McCain was the originator of the letter and its prime mover, as indicated by its being on his Senate stationery.

[4] “Keep Politics Kosher: No Pork,” John Boehner, Wall Street Journal, January 17, 2006, p. A16.

[5] For example, for pork in military construction appropriations bills to be accepted by the House and Senate appropriations and armed services committees, certain paper work is required, such as various DOD forms and declarations. These documents are readily and speedily supplied by military base commanders and Pentagon bureaucrats to members of Congress seeking specific military construction projects. While the requirement for the documentation, as written by the committees, sounds impressive and imposing, they are little more than a greased skid in practical terms.

[6] For a description of the involvement of mid-level bureaucrats in DOD in the pork process, see “Defense Budget Tutorial #3B: Pork: What Is It?” at www.cdi.org/smrp.

 

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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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