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Obama and Pentagon Pork

On Aug. 17 at the Veterans of Foreign Wars in Phoenix, President Barack Obama gave waste and pork in the defense budget a thorough tongue lashing.

It was well said, but also a little pathetic if you consider what the porkers in Congress are up to. The words flew high: Obama promised an end to “the special interests and their exotic projects that are years behind schedule and billions over budget,” and he reaffirmed that he is killing off high cost pork like the F-22 fighter, the unneeded second engine for the F 35 and the stupendously expensive presidential helicopter – the one with the stove to permit him to cook a snack under nuclear attack.

Then he delivered the hammer: “And if Congress sends me a defense bill loaded with this kind of waste, I will veto it.” Get out your pen, Mr. President; the porkers in Congress have slathered up the 2010 defense appropriations bill. Your veto threats have not fazed them in the slightest. In fact, it seems you have already surrendered on many of the issues; on the most important one, you didn’t even put up a fight.

Back in April, Obama and Defense Secretary Robert Gates listed several major programs they wanted to cancel; prominent were the programs Obama called out on August 17, plus the C-17 transport, of which the Air Force has more than it wants, and a deeply flawed missile defense program, the Kinetic Energy Interceptor.

Gates and Obama gave up early and often on the C-17. In May, when the House Appropriations Committee added eight more of them for $2.2 billion to a 2009 supplemental spending bill, Gates’ spokesman signaled green, saying, “don’t think the secretary’s going to lose sleep over a couple more C-17s in the supplemental.” Then, in July, the same House appropriators added three more C-17s to the new 2010 Department of Defense appropriations bill, costing another $674 million. And now the Senate appropriators are upping that ante to 10.

Not only did Obama fail to call out the C-17s in his Phoenix speech, he failed to threaten a veto over them in his Statement of Administration Policy (SAP), released to detail the White House objections to the House bill.

Knowing clear sailing when they see it, the C-17’s producer, Boeing, and a gaggle of senators lobbied successfully without the slightest resistance from either Gates or Obama. How can this be? The Obama administration won a titanic victory over pork in the Senate on July 21 with a lopsided 58-40 vote to kill the F-22. Reading the tea leaves, the chairman of the House Appropriations defense subcommittee, Rep. John Murtha, D-Pa., took money for the plane out of his bill.

Surely, Congress’ porkers got the message; their day is done, right?

Not hardly.

Murtha and the House added a lot more than the initial batch of three C-17s to get that ball rolling.

They added $560 million for the second F-35 engine; $400 million to start buying the presidential helicopter (with the stove); $80 million to save the Kinetic Energy Interceptor (from Murtha’s district); and they added 1,116 other earmarks costing $2.75 billion. The Senate Appropriations Committee even made it clear the president’s F-22 victory was a way station, not an end, to the program; the committee endorsed spending, sure to be high, to modify the F-22 to enable foreign sales. Not exactly chastened, are they?

The absolute worst of it is how they pay for all this. They didn’t add money. They raided other accounts for “offsets.” They took $2.3 billion out of the Operation and Maintenance (O&M) account.

That’s where the Pentagon pays for training, spare parts, weapon maintenance and all the other things needed most to support troops at war. Interesting priorities, eh?

Beneath his Phoenix rhetoric, Obama waffled on whether he would really veto the bill even if it included the extra F-35 engines or the presidential helicopter. The SAP weasel-worded, saying that if the final bill “would seriously disrupt” or “prejudge” Obama’s plans for those programs, then his “senior advisors would recommend that he veto the bill.” Compare this with the straightforward language on the F-22. It says “if the final bill presented to [Obama] contains this provision [meaning any F-22s], the President will veto it.” I worked on Capitol Hill for over three decades; I know an invitation to a porky compromise when I see it, and so do the porkers.

As for the raids on training and readiness in the O&M account to pay for 1,116 earmarks? Not a peep of opposition from the president.

Complete surrender. Obama is not standing in the way of pork and waste in defense bills, he is enabling it. He has a chance to get serious when the Senate takes up its version later this month. But so far, it looks like he doesn’t want to stand behind his own rhetoric and put up a real fight.

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’.

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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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