The Pentagon Remains Immune

The House of Representatives will soon be debating the new Department of Defense (DoD) appropriations bill. It’s expensive – $649 billion, close to another post-World War II high. The bill covers almost all of DoD’s expenses for fiscal year 2012 – both routine expenses, such as basic payroll, training and weapons acquisition (known as the “base” budget), and war spending – for Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere.

Pretending reform and frugality, members of the House Appropriations Committee – Democrats and Republicans alike – packed the bill with pork and gimmicks.

The bill would spend $17 billion more than last year. But House appropriators are calling this increase a cut because it’s less than the original defense budget request President Obama sent to Congress in February. That request was made irrelevant by the president’s subsequent decision to reduce long-term security spending by $400 billion.

In addition to pretending frugality, the committee apes reform. It explicitly denies the existence of earmarks in the bill, saying in its own committee report, “Neither the bill nor the report contains any congressional earmarks, limited tax benefits, or limited tariff benefits as defined in clause 9 of rule XXI.”

I found many earmarks.

For example, the tables for Army Research and Development (R&D) on Page 211 of the committee report instruct DoD to add $20 million for “University and Industry Research Centers” for “Historically Black Colleges and Universities.” More earmarks can be found in the other services’ R&D tables, and more still in the Procurement and Operation and Maintenance tables.

There also are earmarks in the Defense Health Program (DHP): On Page 269 of the report, the committee adds $523 million for medical research – for cancer, autism, Lou Gehrig’s disease and other afflictions not related to war.

Buried in the “General Provisions” section is a $300 million transfer to the Department of Education: “impact aid” for schoolchildren of military personnel. Bureaucrats in the Department of Education and elsewhere like to float this expense in the DoD budget.

Congress loves such nondefense pork in DoD bills – Democrats because they get to spend defense dollars on social programs, Republicans because it buys Democratic collaboration and votes. It also earns praise back home and generates campaign contributions.

There is another gigantic earmark – $1.5 billion – for National Guard and Reserves equipment. The committee report, on Page 331, directs exactly how to spend the money for various Reserve components and equipment programs. The specific instructions were written by interested House members who’ve been given wish lists by Reserve component commanders in their states. The spending has been vetted only by the interested parties.

The bill has some obscure – but expensive – accounting gimmicks as well. The bill makes across-the-board cuts in the Operations and Maintenance ($501.8 million), Procurement ($484.8 million) and R&D ($323.5 million) accounts. These are described as “revised economic assumptions,” but there is no explanation as to what was revised.

In the past, such cuts have been clarified to a select few as new estimates of lower inflation – estimates that often turn out to be quite wrong, as is likely the case now, given the relentless increases we are seeing in food, energy and commodity prices.

These “revised economic assumptions” would make an excellent subject for an inquiry on the floor of the House as the bill is debated: Just what economic assumptions were revised and why? Who conducted the analysis and how? Can you provide a copy?

More likely than not, the so-called “reductions” were provided to the Appropriations Committee staff by DoD officials (who don’t want to see real cuts in actual programs), or were simply cooked up by committee staff to offset pork and other increases.

It would also be useful to get an explanation why a bill that has no “congressional earmarks, limited tax benefits, or limited tariff benefits” has so much pork.

Asking such questions on the floor of the House of Representatives would mean that someone is focused on ethics and accountability in how Congress oversees Pentagon spending.

But I expect no such inquiries. Instead, it’s all business as usual as the Republicans and Democrats on the House Appropriations Committee run a defense-budgeting operation every bit as full of pork, gimmicks and dodges as ever.

Winslow T. Wheeler is director of the Straus Military Reform Project and editor of “The Pentagon Labyrinth: 10 Short Essays to Help You Through It.


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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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