How to Steal from Our Troops: The Annual Defense Budget Raid

Peter W. Singer
Peter W. Singer Former Brookings Expert, Strategist and Senior Fellow - New America

October 20, 2009

Our nation faces booming budget deficits and an economic challenge of a scale not seen in decades. Our military is locked in not one, but two grinding wars. And, in the last presidential election both the Democratic and Republican candidates pledged, to universal acclaim, to fight government waste. If ever the stars were aligned for Congress to treat our defense budget with due seriousness, this was the time.

But fear not, the season for the defense budget to be raided for personal pet projects has come around once more. This month the Senate Appropriations Committee placed 778 earmarks (also known as “pork”) into the legislative bill that is supposed to pay for our nation’s defense. The worst part may be how the committee chose to fund the additional $2.6 billion costs their earmarks raised. With budgets now tighter, they couldn’t just add the numbers on top, so they instead drew an equivalent amount out from the Pentagon’s “Operations and Maintenance” request. Writes Winslow Wheeler of the Center for Defense Information, perhaps one of the best watchdogs on government waste, “O&M pays all of our troops’ training, all of the maintenance, repairs and spares for their weapons, vehicles, planes and ships, all of the food and fuel they consume, and all of the upkeep of the bases and ranges where they live and train. In short, when our nation goes to war, as now, O&M is the most important and direct way we support our troops.”

Not all earmarks are automatically wasteful pork. Indeed, a number of valuable weapons, like the Predator drone, have originally been supported through earmarks, in which Congress championed projects that didn’t yet have sufficient support within the Pentagon. The problem, though, is that the process more often is abused.

First, that a system lacks sufficient support within the Pentagon to garner normal budgetary support is usually for a good reason. Many of the earmarks are for things like 10 additional C-17 cargo planes that the Air Force doesn’t want, or a DDG-51 destroyer that isn’t a Navy priority. Besides the diverted costs in this year’s budget, the military will be stuck with the operational costs of these additional, unwanted systems for the next decades.

Secondly, earmarks usually go to programs that are not competitively bidded. Instead, they are more often wasteful rewards to home districts and political donors. For instance, a study by Taxpayers for Common Sense found that the chairman of the Senate defense Appropriations subcommittee, Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, got 35 earmarks worth $206.5 million in the final bill. It’s a mere coincidence that he’s received $173,000 in campaign contributions since 2007 from the very same companies that will profit from those earmarks. Showing how porkdom has no partisan lines, ranking member Thad Cochran, R-Miss., won 48 earmarks worth $216 million. He received $144,500 in campaign contributions from companies these earmarks will benefit. That same destroyer the Navy doesn’t want? It’s pure chance that it will be built in Cochran’s home state by his biggest donor.

Finally, many of the earmarks put in the defense appropriations bill actually have nothing to do with national defense. At least in some earmarks, the military is getting actual planes or ships, even if unwanted and wastefully gained. Other earmarks include $20 million for an education institute named after the late Sen. Edward Kennedy, $25 million to a World War II museum at the University of New Orleans, and $9.5 million for a wind tunnel in Montana.

These projects may well have value, but they should stand on their own merit. Ted Kennedy was one of the most successful senators in history, who served in the U.S. Army as well. Taking money from military training accounts is not an appropriate way to honor him. Similarly, I would hazard that even veterans of World War II prefer the Pentagon’s money be spent on their successors now serving in Iraq and Afghanistan, rather than a project whose actual main selling point is that it will aid tourism in Louisiana. As for wind tunnels in Montana? Until grizzly bears attack in rocket ships, it is hard to describe that as a national defense priority.

Even in normal times, the kind of wasteful behavior we’ve see from both sides of the aisle in Congress would be absurd. It takes on a whole new meaning in the present time of financial crisis and war. Shame.