Back From the Dead: Pentagon Pork!

Until now, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has made a name for himself as the man in charge of the defense budget.  He forced the normally free-lancing Joint Chiefs of Staff to sign extraordinary documents promising not to leak defense budget details – for the purpose of undermining decisions they didn’t like.  Gates has also responded to senators and representatives in hearings on Capitol Hill using blunt ripostes when they attempted to win admissions that just a few billions dollars more for their favorite flavor of defense pork would be OK.

It was looking very much like the grizzled veterans of the congressional pork system had finally met their match in a secretary of defense determined to make his decisions stick.

And, he had made plenty, further augmenting his stature.  On April 6, 2009, Gates personally announced 50 decisions on Pentagon programs.  The official budget he revealed on May 7 validated the end of production for the F-22 fighter, the C-17 transport, the VH-71 helicopter for the president, missile defense programs, a satellite, and many more.  Each had richly earned its demise by being grossly over-budget, technologically dubious, at the end of its planned production run, or all of the above.

Then, the time came to translate words and budget request documents into action.  The porkers acted; Gates didn’t; he hasn’t even made a peep.

Gates is being rolled by Congress on one of the very major aircraft he thought he was canceling, the C-17, a long range cargo aircraft costing over $275 million a piece.  The top defense budget porker in the House of Representatives, Rep. John Murtha (D-PA) added $2.2 billion for eight more of them to a “must pass” supplemental appropriations bill to fund the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan for the balance of the current fiscal year.  It would make for a grand total of 213 of these aircraft, even though the latest Air Force requirement of 190 had already been surpassed at 205, the number currently funded.

In the Senate, top appropriator Daniel Inouye (D-HI) grunted audibly across the trough to senators Diane Feinstein and Barbara Boxer (both D-CA), that they had “good reason to be optimistic” they will get their extra California-built C-17s.  And right he was: now emerging from its House-Senate conference committee, the supplemental appropriations bill contains all eight additional C-17s, quite unscathed.

And, where is the stout-hearted Gates?  In a May 13 “Statement of Administration Policy” (SAP), the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) gave its official reaction to the bill containing the superfluous C-17s; not a peep was uttered about them.  SAPs are the White House’s usual vehicle for grumbling about congressional mangling of its budget requests, even threatening vetoes if the complaints are not respected.  The silence was a very clear signal.

Gates himself has been mum.  He has not made any a fuss whatsoever in his own public statements, nor has his spokesman.  In fact his spokesman, Geoff Morrell, said on May 19, “I don’t think the secretary’s going to lose sleep over a couple more C- 17s in the supplemental.”  The signal was even more clear: It’s as if he had said, “Please feel free to ignore us.”

The reason for Gates and the White House going horizontal is quite unclear.  It could be that the eight in the bill are what people think is a reasonable compromise from the fifteen that Boeing originally wanted. It could be that the C-17’s porkers (it’s built in 43 states) went over Gates’ head to the White House; there, Rahm Emanuel (who used to represent Chicago, Illinois where Boeing is headquartered) might have provided a willing ear.

In any case, if Gates is successfully rolled on the C-17, many more of his decisions are sure to unravel.  If the C-17 can get a break, why shouldn’t Senator Saxby Chambliss (R-GA) add just a few more Georgia-built F-22s to the next defense funding measure?  Congressman Roscoe Bartlett (R-MD) has already proposed adding back into the budget most of the horrendously over-priced VH-71 presidential helicopters Gates thought he was canceling.  And so it will go.

Right now, both the House and Senate Armed Services Committees are compiling their pork add-ons – totaling several billions of dollars – for the 2010 Department of Defense Authorization bill, due to be debated later this month. As in past years, they will not add money to the bill to pay for it all; instead, they will quietly raid Pentagon accounts which very few in Congress are willing to guard: the accounts that fund training, weapons maintenance, training, and the like – the kind of accounts Gates has said he wants to protect.  Why shouldn’t the porkers in the Armed Services and Appropriation Committees do what they always do?  When push comes to shove, no one really seems to mind.

If you think all this sounds like business as usual, you’re right.

The idea of vetoing a defense bill, especially one that provides funds for the ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, will horrify many.  That is precisely the protection the porkers sought when they added those eight extra C-17s, but a bill stripped of such pork will very surely pass very quickly.  If Secretary Gates hopes to preserve his authority over what is in the defense budget and what is not, he needs to take action to show Congress’ porkers that he will never be their patsy.  If he maintains his silence, he’ll just be another ham sandwich.

WINSLOW T. WHEELER spent 31 years working on Capitol Hill with senators from both political parties and the Government Accountability Office, specializing in national security affairs. Currently, he directs the Straus Military Reform Project of the Center for Defense Information in Washington. He is author of The Wastrels of Defense and the editor of a new anthology: ‘America’s Defense Meltdown: Pentagon Reform for President Obama and the New Congress’.

Winslow T. Wheeler worked for 31 years on Capitol Hill for both Republican and Democratic Senators and for the Government Accountability Office on national security and program evaluation issues. When he left Capitol Hill he worked at the Center for Defense Information and the Project On Government Oversight for thirteen years altogether.