A Peek at Pentagon Pork: A Taxpayers’ Guide

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The House Armed Services Committee (HASC) and the Defense Subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee (sometimes called the HAC-D) have reported their separate defense bills to the House of Representatives (both bills purport to address both spending and policy). The House has already debated and passed the HASC’s “National Defense Authorization Act” (NDAA); it will soon debate the defense appropriations bill. Let’s check out what they’ve drafted and try to figure out which panel is the House’s reigning Pentagon pork king.

The press has covered both bills with multiple daily articles; the House debate, while truncated, got into all sorts of nuts and bolts, including amendments on labor practices in DOD contracting, military depot policy, and protection of sea otters in navy exercise areas, among many other things. In all, there were 141 amendments allowed for debate. That level of legislative and journalistic activity would suggest that the bill and its accompanying “committee report” were thoroughly scrubbed to make sure there were no slimy invertebrates hiding under rocks in the depths of the bill or its report.

Think no such thing.

The sea otters and other minutia addressed in amendments, for example, reflect the energy and thoroughness of lobbyists, not of congressional staff or others. Otherwise, some particularly odious elements of the HASC bill would hopefully have been challenged by one of the very few existing guardians of ethics and governance in the House. Had they or their staffs combed thoroughly through the bill and report they would have uncovered and, I hope, exposed that everlasting object of interest by Members of Congress: pork.

Surely, that’s impossible. Even if reluctantly, Congress reformed itself on pork. Right? Indeed, it says so right here on page 530:
 If you think that Congress has rid itself of all its mechanisms to push pork, you don’t understand Congress. In going over the two committee’s reports, which are not exactly user-friendly documents, I found what looks to me like a pork slush fund in the HASC bill. I should know, as a congressional staffer over three decades I pushed more than my share of pork for the senators I worked for (from both parties).

At the end of my congressional career—while working for Senator Pete V. Domenici, R-N.M., at both the Senate Budget Committee and the SAC-D—I pushed earmarks for one of Capitol Hill’s uber porkers. Domenici was known, and loved, in New Mexico as “Saint Pete” for his singular success in bringing home tons of bacon, year after year, in every way imaginable.

The HASC and HAC-D reports contain sections addressing spending for “operation and maintenance” (O&M). This spending is generally known to be for training, facilities upkeep, military exercises, repair and maintenance, and more—the essential spending that keeps our military going and competent. Hardly a place for pork, one would think—unless you know Congress.

I got suspicious when I found a lot of entries in the tables for O&M spending in the HASC report labeled “Restoration & Modernization of Facilities.” There were dollar amounts sprinkled through the O&M table, many of them large, added for each military service and the Reserves and National Guards, but there was no explanation what the money was really for. The explanatory material in the text didn’t explain diddley, except for one vague assertion that there was a “substantial increase for facility restoration and modernization” for the Air Force.

I found nothing even at that level of vagueness for any of the other services, but I did find explanations for other adds in the O&M money tables for other things, like keeping aircraft in the inventory that the Obama administration wants to retire. In short, the money being added for “Restoration & Modernization of Facilities” was being added without any meaningful guidance, none whatsoever.

Don’t bother thinking long and hard where that guidance might actually be coming from.

This money has the distinct odor of being a slush fund not for the bureaucrats but for Members of Congress. When the legislation is signed into law, DOD will get some letters and phone calls. Fort Huachuca needs a new gate; Camp Pendleton’s Marine Memorial Golf Course needs alteration; the commanding officer’s house needs a porch redo at Langley Air Force Base: these hypothetical examples are the sorts of things that military base commanders lobby Congress to fix; they do it out of the usual budget chain of command, where impertinent questions—like “why?”—don’t get asked.

The Members of the HASC—at least the ones who know about the slush fund—probably already have a list; when the bill is law and the money is available for use, the letters and phone calls will start coming in at the Pentagon’s congressional liaison offices. This entire gambit is very reminiscent of a slushy pork fund the HASC set up last year for private enterprise initiatives in R&D spending—except that this new one is buried in the bill’s report.

The dollar amounts are not peanuts. The Army will be getting $193.6 million for unspecified “Restoration and Modernization of Facilities.” The Air Force: $215.5 million; the Army National Guard $49.4 million. In all, I count $594.7 million in the HASC report (details here).

The report from the House Appropriations Committee contains an interesting difference. The HAC-D spending tables for O&M money contain the same sort of title for this item (“Facilities Sustainment, Restoration, & Modernization”), but the text adds an actual explanation. It says that in the previous year, the Committee expressed its concern over just how real the Pentagon’s proposed efficiency savings would be:

While unspecific, this guidance does obtusely but significantly limit how the appropriators want to see this money spent. What the HASC set up as a general pot of money with no instruction, the HAC-D had guidance for. Nor was it a question of economy of words; the HASC report is a mind-bending 583 pages, in two volumes; the HAC-D report is a somewhat less-numbing 340 pages.

It is depressing indeed: the House Appropriations Committee—renowned for its porkiness—is significantly less aggressive about setting up a slush fund for itself than the HASC.

Of course, I could have this wrong. The members of the House Appropriations Committee could easily turn out to be every bit as aggressive about instructing DOD on how to spend this extra facility-maintenance money as the HASC members. There may even be reason to think so; the HAC-D proposes much more money for the purpose. The HAC-D total for this category comes to $722.3 million: a fulsome $127.6 million more than the HASC. Perhaps, the Members and staff at the HAC-D have a few extra loose ends they want to tighten up at those facilities.

Moreover, there appears to be at least one other slush fund—again in the HASC report. On page 278, it sets up a $500 million equipment fund for the National Guard, in addition to the $3.1 billion already requested by the president for National Guard equipment:

I know this game and have played it many times: during the executive branch’s budget process, the National Guard adjutants general in the states lobby the Defense Department for new equipment purchases, with the able assistance of the manufacturers.

When that process is over, they lobby Capitol Hill for whatever additional equipment that didn’t make it through the executive branch process. Each year, in Senator Domenici’s office, we would get letters from the governor and his National Guard adjutant general about more Patriot missiles, upgraded F-16s and a lot else.

Not coincidently, these letters were usually followed up by a visit from the manufacturers’ lobbyists. The process was as porky as it gets. The HASC’s $500 million slush fund for the National Guard is a part of all that. The letters and phone calls to DOD on just how to spend that money will be pouring in from Members of Congress.

I focused mostly on the O&M sections of the HASC and HAC-D reports. There are probably other slush funds buried in the combined 923 pages of those documents; they need a thorough scrubbing by someone other than myself to capture all the creatures hiding under rocks in these two bills. The same goes for the Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC), which is also finishing up its version of the 2013 defense authorization. Always the paragon of pomposity for pretending solicitude for the soldier while slathering itself with pork, the SASC’s reports always make amusing reading.

So who is this year’s king of defense pork on the Hill? The HASC would seem to have a palpable edge. It’s always a close-run thing, and there are hot contenders to be checked out, but for now they must, by a snout, get the nod.

Winslow T. Wheeler is the Director of the Straus Military Reform Project of the Center for Defense Information at the Project on Government Oversight (POGO) in Washington. He is also the editor of the anthology “The Pentagon Labyrinth: 10 Short Essays to Help You Through It”.