The House and Senate Armed Services Committees have taken a small but significant step to eliminate – well, almost – one of the most outrageous congressional behaviors in defense legislation.
For years, these committees have raided the Pentagon’s critical Operation and Maintenance accounts to offset the cost of earmarks (pork) they add to their bills.
A major part of the O&M budget pays for training, weapons maintenance, food, fuel, spare parts, and all the other things troops need when they go to war. Even though O&M spending is the budgetary embodiment of “Support Our Troops,” and even though research on these raids has been around for years, no one paid the slightest attention and the appalling behavior continued.
For example, the House and Senate Armed Services Committees added over 900 earmarks altogether to their defense bills. The House committee added 502 earmarks, and the Senate committee added 426. To help offset their cost, the House committee reduced O&M by $1.9 billion; the Senate committee raided O&M by $2.0 billion.
Then, the press started paying attention to research (reported at Military.com, the Huffington Post, and the website of the Straus Military Reform Project) about all this. The Washington Post and Congressional Quarterly made references to the behavior. The matter was brought up by Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) and a few others in the debates in the Senate on this year’s defense bills, and then the Washington Times ran a front page story about the issue.
The jig was up. Under the emerging public glare, the House and Senate Armed Services Committees cleaned up their act. In the final version of their 2010 bill – the “conference report” — they dropped the various phony pretexts they had used to cut O&M spending. Gone were “civilian under-execution” (pretending DoD wasn’t hiring civilians when it was actually hiring more: cut over $500 million), fuel cost reductions (pretending worldwide fuel prices would decline by a known amount: cut over $200 million), and “unobligated balances” (declaring money DoD had not yet spent to be forever excess: cut hundreds and hundreds of $millions). These and the other gimmicks were (almost) all gone. Just a, relatively speaking, small $100 million reduction for those yet-to-be-obligated unobligated balances remained.
That’s the good news.
They did end up reducing the President’s request for O&M. Obama asked for $156.4 billion; they cut that by $264 million. Anyone paying the slightest attention knows each of the military services need major increases for training and maintenance.
They also did not take their pork out of the bill. The conference report lists about 900 House and Senate earmarks. There was no meaningful effort to reduce them. The Armed Services Committees simply shifted the burden of paying for most of them to other accounts.
It is also very important to note that little else changed. These committees still have our defenses on the same course they have been on for decades. That is not a good thing; our forces have been growing smaller, older, and less ready to fight – at increasing overall cost – for decades. The increasing dollar bloat continues to buy a weaker force.
The worst news is that even though the Armed Services Committees may have taken a small, constructive step, it may amount to nothing.
Those committees don’t control the money. The appropriations committees do. The authorization bill from the House and Senate Armed Services Committees is a policy bill that only recommends funding levels. Most people don’t know it, but their dollar figures are purely advisory.
To whom does this advice go? In the House, it goes to the Ultra-Porker, John Murtha (D-Penn), chairman of the House Appropriations defense subcommittee. Murtha, of course is the subject of much reporting questioning his ethics and actions. Many defense watchers will not be surprised to see him indicted in the not too distant future. In the Senate, the appropriators are led by Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii) whose typically gentlemanly behavior coexists with some of the most voracious porking for Hawaii that I have seen in more than 30 years on Capitol Hill.
The House and Senate Appropriations Committee are now in conference resolving the differences in their bills, each of which raided O&M for billions of dollars. The Armed Services Committees have laid out a different path for themselves: Make the pork, not O&M, pay for itself. It is a small step, but it is very much worth taking – if you have any decency. It will be interesting to see what the appropriators do. We should all pay attention.
Winslow Wheeler is director of the Straus Military Reform Project of the Center for Defense Information in Washington.