Fiscal discipline is a farce
By Winslow Wheeler
Depending on how you calculate it, the House Appropriations Committee has added as much as $18.6 billion to the Obama administration’s military spending request in the Committee’s 2015 Department of Defense appropriations bill, HR 4870.
According to the committee’s official report, this amount consists mostly of added hardware items in multiple accounts within the bill. A significant amount is for extra training and maintenance—supposedly. But as is typical of Congress, what the committee says it did and what it actually did … are two entirely different things.
While Congress claims it’s doing everything it can to eliminate government waste, in reality the House appropriations bill is chock full of vague, sometimes highly misleading language supporting billions of dollars in added spending.
The $18.6 billion I mentioned above is the gross addition to the bill, not the net change taking into account the many “offsets” the committee identified. In fact, the bill’s total for “base” non-war military spending is $201 million less than the $490.7 billion the administration asked for.
But because of various ruses and dodges, the actual non-war spending that probably will result from the committee’s recommendations will be substantially higher.
Perhaps the most widely recognized gimmick is the so-called “place-holder” account of $79.4 billion for war operations above and beyond the $490.7 billion the administration formally requested for “base” non-war spending.
The Obama Administration refused to say how much it needed for Afghanistan and other foreign military operations until a couple of weeks after the House Appropriations Committee put together its own bill.
Having neither the collective intellect nor interest to make an independent calculation for war needs, the committee specifically appropriated the entire $79.4-billion Obama place-holder amount—the same amount he requested for 2014 to support a significantly larger U.S. troop presence and tempo of operations in Afghanistan than the Pentagon is planning for 2015.
In its specific itemization of what the place-holder should include, the HAC made clear it has some definite ideas for extra spending. They total $9.4 billion and have almost nothing to do with the administration’s ongoing global military operations.
For example, the HAC added $2 billion for new National Guard and Reserve hardware in the place-holder account, specifying on page 207 of the committee report precisely which programs the military should spend much of the money on.
Given traditional congressional support for unrequested National Guard and Reserve hardware, this in effect announces the committee’s intent to include that money in whatever final amount gets appropriated for war funding.
The Senate Appropriations Committee added $1 billion for the National Guard in its mark-up of the war account in July. The House and Senate will resolve the difference when the bill goes to conference later this year.
Beyond to the extra money for National Guard and Reserve hardware, the HAC recommended an additional $6 billion for procurement over the 2014 war-fund procurement amount, but didn’t identify the recipient programs.
The Senate Appropriations Committee added several hundred million to its equivalent procurement account, including $475 million for undisclosed classified programs.
The HAC provided still another $1.4 billion for spending vaguely entitled “other”—a designation it left completely unexplained.
The HAC also identified accounts in the war-funding proposal that it wanted to reduce or zero out, thereby making the room for the added $9.4 billion without exceeding the $79.4 billion place-holder total. The committee reduced spending for military personnel and operations and maintenance—in recognition of the reduced U.S. military presence in Afghanistan—and zeroed out all spending for an Afghanistan Infrastructure Fund and an Afghanistan Security Forces Fund.
The $79.4-billion place holder is $19.2 billion more than the $60.2 billion the administration ultimately requested on June 26—two weeks after the HAC reported its bill. However, the lesser amount doesn’t mean that the additions the HAC recommended in fact will go away. In the past, Congress has reduced amounts requested for foreign countries—Afghanistan, mostly—and has added to the total spending level of war requests.
Thus, some significant portion of the $9.4 billion the HAC added to the place-holder could survive Senate and House appropriators’ final adjudication of the account for 2015.
However, this may not occur until after the November elections. Time, and close scrutiny, will tell.
Only about half of the HAC’s add-ons are in the place-holder. In the base portions of the bill, there are scores of individual additions amounting to $9.2 billion.
In the base bill’s procurement account alone there are 45 specific add-ons totaling $4.6 billion. Some of them are minor, such as $5 million the appropriators added for Army Training Devices, $10 million for low-band transmitters for the Navy and $2.5 million for B-2 bomber ejection seat improvements.
But $3.7 billion of the $4.6 billion—80 percent—is for big-ticket additions worth more than $100 million apiece.
For the Army, the HAC added $119 million 11 additional Sikorsky UH-60 Blackhawk helicopters for the National Guard and Special Operations Command. These National Guard UH-60s are on top of the $2-billion hardware fund in the war account.
The Army also gets an extra $148 million for Raytheon’s Patriot missiles. There’s also a separate $52-million increase for radar digital processors for the Patriot.
The HAC also tacked on $120 million to continue General Dynamics’ M-1 Abrams tank upgrade program, which the Army actually wants to suspend. The ground combat branch also benefits from $100 million the House added for an unspecified number of Oshkosh and other medium and heavy tactical trucks.
There’s another $100 million for extra Army National Guard AM General Humvee modifications.
For the Navy, the HAC added $975 million for 12 Boeing EA-18G Growler electronic warfare aircraft, $255 million added for two additional Lockheed F-35C aircraft, $125.5 million more for one extra Boeing P-8A Poseidon patrol plane and $789 million to continue Huntington Ingalls Industries’ effort to refuel and overhaul the nuclear aircraft carrier USS George Washington.
To boost the Air Force, House appropriators added $224 million to buy two additional Lockheed F-35A aircraft, $115 million added for upgraded Raytheon AESA radars for Air National Guard F-15s and $203 million as a “classified adjustment” for an unidentified program.
Thanks to the HAC, Pentagon-wide activities could get an extra $209 million for Lockheed-Raytheon Aegis ballistic missile defense. Israel enjoys an additional $175 million for its Iron Dome rocket-defense program.
The HAC also recommended $1.5 billion in additional gross, not net, add-ons in the research-and-development account of the base bill. A liquid rocket engine development program receives $220 million the Pentagon never asked for.
The Air Force’s newly Lockheed-Sikorsky Combat Rescue Helicopter gets $100 million. Israeli missile-defense programs receive $172 million more than the military requested. Two classified programs receive a combined $238 million, and a “Defense Rapid Innovation Fund” gets $250 million.
That Defense Rapid Innovation Fund is the subject of a very vague explanation in the Committee Report. It states the fund is for unspecified “specific purposes” that are “subject to certain requirements” that the appropriators never explain.
Those familiar with such funds in the past will recognize this Defense Rapid Innovation Fund as a slush account. After enactment, the Pentagon will start receiving letters, e-mails and phone calls from Hill staff and Congresspersons to make sure it knows precisely what programs should receive this money.
Whatever programs the Rapid Innovation Fund ultimately enables, they are in addition to the six over-$100 million R&D add-ons I’ve identified above.
Thus, the total amount the HAC added for hardware varies somewhere between $6.1 billion and $15.5 billion. That’s $4.6 billion in the base budget procurement account and $1.5 billion in R&D, plus an additional $9.4 billion in the place-holder—making the potential grand total $15.5 billion.
Despite all the hot rhetoric in Congress about how poorly funded the Pentagon is after the modest spending reductions, there’s actually a torrent of money flowing into lawmakers’ favorite programs.
Some readers will identify many of these add-ons as earmarks that materially-interested members of Congress slipped into the bill. The committee, however, would have you believe that is not so. Page 324 of the report informs us that “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 [of House Rules].”
Clause 9 of Rule XXI is interesting. Its authors wrote it very carefully to allow plenty of earmarks. The loopholes are myriad, but perhaps the biggest allows earmarks as long as they don’t direct money “to a specific state, locality or Congressional district.” That the spending might just happen to end up in a particular member’s state, locality or congressional district would, of course, be purely coincidental.
There are a lot more of these non-earmark earmarks in the committee report than I’ve identified here. Some of them specify dollar amounts. Others simply exhort the Defense Department to sort out the amount.
The tables, which the committee explicitly instructs the Pentagon to scrupulously observe, require $2.4 million on the Civil Air Patrol, $10 million for high school drop-out program called Youth Challenge, $25 million for another youth program called STARBASE and $40 million for “impact aid” for primary and secondary education.
The general-provisions section of the bill shows Section 8076 directing $44 million to the Red Cross and USO, Section 8129 sending $1 million to the Stennis Center for Public Service Leadership. Separately, there are 23 earmarks worth a combined $591 million for the Defense Health Program, including $120 million for breast cancer research and $12 million for Alzheimer research.
Some of these non-earmark earmarks are annual favorites that used to be on everybody’s list of defense-budget pork. Congress added many of the hardware earmarks because the Defense Department couldn’t fit them into the normal budget. The Joint Chiefs circulated wish lists of extra spending to guide the additions. That’s an old gambit that Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel resurrected, after his predecessor Robert Gates, to his great credit, forbade it.
Hagel has resumed making Pentagon budgets a floor, not a ceiling, for service spending ambitions.
In addition to the dollar-specific earmarks, there are various rhetorical “precursor” earmarks throughout the committee report. For example, page 122 contains exhortations for a High Mobility Engineer Excavator, Tactical Power Sources and Mobile User Objective System Terminals that the committee “urges” without attaching a specific amount of money.
In past years, an experienced analyst at the Congressional Research Service would scrub defense bills, compile all the earmarks and their cost and report on them—but no longer.
The many earmarks in a bill that Congress declared to have no earmarks are just one of the internal contradictions in the HAC bill. Another is in the operations-and-maintenance portion of the bill.
The tables that direct spending show multiple additions for certain categories of readiness-related spending, such as for depot maintenance —$90 million—and $720 million worth of “facilities sustainment, restoration and modernization.”
Section 8137 in the general-provisions part of the bill further directs another $1 billion for readiness for both active duty and reserve forces, and the committee directs yet another $135 million for Army Reserve and National Guard readiness and an addition $68 million for Army National Guard Combat Training Center rotations.
And yet, after $2 billion in additions to O&M specifically for readiness, the net amount for O&M in the HAC bill is $400 million below Obama’s request. There are large cuts resulting from “overestimation” of civilian employees, various forms of “unjustified growth,” classified adjustments and more.
The HAC does not explain how depots and maintenance facilities are supposed to ramp up their work … with fewer employees.
Such contradictions are plainly evident in the committee’s recommendations for Air Force pilot training. Per-month flying hours for air combat training have been notoriously low for years—now as low as eight hours per month for F-22 and F-16 pilots, less than half of what experts deem adequate.
The committee professes its support for “robust funding for flying hours and other training required to achieve pilot competence, safety and combat readiness,” and yet it cuts the funding for Air Force flying hours by $82.7 million, associated fuel costs by $100 million and “Fleet Air Training” by $10.1 million.
The committee complained that the Air Force didn’t execute the planned training program in the past. Its solution is to reduce training in the future!
The House Appropriations Committee declared its support for military readiness, including air combat training, while reducing the money for the same. It packed its bill full of earmarks and declared there were none.
Adding up to $15 billion for hardware that couldn’t make the grade for the official Obama Administration budget request, committee members complained that funding was scarce.
After adopting various—mostly inconsequential—amendments, the House of Representatives passed the bill, HR 4870, by an overwhelming bipartisan vote of 340 to 73 on June 20.
The bill is warped by special interests in the Pentagon, Congress and industry. It’s an example of duplicity, not transparency.
The time for reform is long overdue.
Winslow Wheeler is director of the Straus Military Reform Project of the Center for Defense Information, a part of the Project on Government Oversight in Washington, D.C.
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