With the Fourth of July approaching, lawmakers have split town and left us thinking about where your tax dollars are being spent. For instance, if you happen to be in Michigan for this Independence Day, you could make your way to Traverse City to watch the Blue Angels perform. Or to Battle Creek to see the Thunderbirds. These are the aerobatic flying squadrons of the Navy and the Air Force, respectively. If you wanted to catch the Golden Knights, the Army’s parachute team, this holiday you’d head to either upstate New York or Dubuque, IA.
But if you wanted to know how much these “recruiting tools” cost, you would be hard pressed to pin down an answer. Buried in the Navy’s fiscal year 2015 budget submission you can see that the “Blue Angles” [sic] will cost just under $40 million this year. We figure the Thunderbirds are probably even more expensive because, well, Air Force programs always seem to cost more than their counterparts in other services.
The Golden Knights are funded under a recruiting line bizarrely titled “examining” that comes in at $194 million. This includes funding for the (DOD-wide) U.S. Military Entrance Processing Command and a few other unrelated items such as the U.S. Army Marksmanship Unit and the U.S. Army Parachute Team. The Army’s “detailed” budget justification doesn’t break down how much of the $194 million is going to each program.
While we can’t tell you exactly how much is being spent on these recruiting activities, it appears to be in the neighborhood of $100 million per year. While not a lot in the context of a half-trillion defense budget, it is far from clear that there’s a $100 million return on investment in terms of recruiting and public relations. The services should have to document the effectiveness of their recruiting investments whether they are Super Bowl commercials, or NASCAR sponsorship or performing aerial stunts. In fact, the Blue Angels just gave the Navy a black eye: a Pacific Fleet investigation found an abusive culture at the squadron. After extolling their value, the report conceded that “the inappropriate behaviors and criminal conduct documented in this report reflect poorly on the Navy in general and Naval Aviation in particular.” Ouch.
Sticking with jets for a moment, another thing caught our eye this week, or perhaps we should say didn’t catch our eye because it’s harder to see. We’re talking about tracking information about lawmakers jetsetting to foreign locales on trips paid for by outside organizations. Organizations that could be funded by lobbyists or companies that would like to influence that lawmaker. Wouldn’t you like to know?
Well, the House Ethics Committee just made it harder for you to find out. Earlier this week the National Journal reported that the Committee quietly gutted the Watergate-era rules that require lawmakers to document gifts of free travel on their annual financial disclosure forms. Now, the only way to find out who went where is to go through the periodic updates in the Congressional Record, but it is cumbersome and less detailed. Besides, people want to know what their individual lawmaker did, not peruse all the travel activity by lawmakers in a particular week.
As we dig through the budget and other legislative materials, one thing has become clear. Online does not equal transparent. Whether it is budgetary needles obscured by enormous electronic haystacks of data or information posted in a static way that isn’t downloadable, searchable, and sortable. Information is power and policymakers know that. And it’s up to all of us to demand accountability and transparency from our lawmakers. That would be something to celebrate.