By Walter Pincus
Congress is still playing games with the Defense Department budget, which at $605.7 billion is more than half the $1.1 trillion in the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2014 that was passed last week.
The Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) account in the defense budget, which is supposed to cover costs arising from Afghanistan, Iraq and other foreign operations, has been turned into a $10.8 billion “War Pretext Slush Fund,” according to Winslow Wheeler, director of the Straus Military Reform Project of the Project on Government Oversight.
Wheeler, an expert on national security spending who worked on Capitol Hill and for the Government Accountability Office, notes that the legislators added $5.8 billion to the OCO account above the $79.4 billion the Obama administration requested. The legislators then cut $5 billion from that same Obama OCO request — mainly by reducing the Afghanistan Security Forces Fund by $3.1 billion.
They then applied $9.3 billion to operations and maintenance of the military services, plus $1 billion for National Guard and reserve equipment, two accounts that Wheeler noted had vague connections to “war-related” activities — but which were not capped by the December budget agreement worked out by the chairmen of the House and Senate budget committees, Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.). The “base” defense spending figure was capped.
As a result of this shifting, House and Senate members had “base” budget money to fund their pet projects, many of which Pentagon officials have tried to cut for years.
Start with $225 million added this year — to the more than $200 million Congress has regularly added — for the Congressionally Directed Medical Research Program (CDMRP). It’s a program never sought by the Pentagon that I have written about before, one that has disbursed more than$6 billion for nearly 20 years. Taxpayers for Common Sense, a nonpartisan research organization, on Wednesday described the CDMRP as Senate and House members “meddling in the area of medical research . . . that may or may not benefit military service members.”
It began in the early 1990s with $25 million for breast cancer research at a time of limited funding for the National Institutes of Health. The CDMRP has grown to include prostate, lung, ovarian and other cancer research, thanks to lobbying by outside groups. Since the military is not equipped to run peer-review research, an Army medical unit runs it through contractors.
This year, $25 million has been added to cover reseach including blood, genetic and kidney cancers. Another $200 million has been approved for new research in areas including acupuncture, arthritis, food allergies and tinnitius (chronic ringing in the ears) with the proviso they have “clear scientific merit and direct relevance to military health,” according to the congressional report on the legislation. Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), a family doctor and a previous critic of the program, said last week that he was “flabbergasted” by this year’s added money. He pointed out that many on the list already are being researched at NIH.
Other add-ons by Congress include:
- $2.24 billion directed to reverse the administration’s second effort in two years to retire seven older U.S. Navy cruisers and two amphibious dock landing ships in 2015. The administration has estimated that retiring these vessels would save $562 million. The congressionally approved plan provides that amount be spent over the next seven years “to man, operate, sustain, and modernize these ships.” It also directs the Navy secretary “to upgrade at least one of the . . . cruisers starting in fiscal 2014.” To guarantee all the bases are covered, the legislation provides that “no funds provided in this act shall be used to prepare a budget submission to retire the above-listed ships.”
- $10 millionfor Air Force research and development to adapt U-2 sensors to the unmanned Global Hawk Block 30 airframe for flight test and demonstration. Another section of the act prohibits “the retirement, divestment, realignment, or transfer of Global Hawk Block 30 aircraft and requiring the Air Force to maintain the operational capability of each such aircraft.” The administration estimates that mothballing the Global Hawk Block 30s would save $324 million and justifies it by arguing the currently flying U-2 is less expensive and has sensors Global Hawk does not.
- $90 million to maintain an industrial base that upgrades older Abrams M1 tanks, though the Pentagon wants to shut down the line until new tanks are ready for production. About 12 upgraded tanks are produced each month at a plant in Lima, Ohio. Rep. Mike Turner (R-Ohio), chairman of the House Armed Services subcommittee on tactical air and land forces, has promoted the program and described adding the funds so the “Army can continue to produce the upgraded Abrams tank” at a rate that would “avoid a shutdown of the plant.’’
- $218 million is added for the health program Tricare because Congress has barred the Obama administration’s attempt to increase annual fees for retirees covered by the plan. Individuals currently pay $273.84 a year, and families pay $547.68. The administration plan calls for almost doubling that, depending on incomes, under a program that would save billions through fiscal 2018, according to Pentagon estimates.
Congress also denied money for programs it did not want — even though the Pentagon did. Perhaps at the top of the list was the $8 million it removed from the Office of the Secretary of Defense. The funds were to pay to prepare a proposal for a Base Realignment and Closure Commission for fiscal 2015. It would have started a process to close excess bases that the administration sees as necessary to save money as force sizes are reduced. Most lawmakers with such facilities in their home states are against planning for such a process.
It all adds up to more evidence that even in times of budget constraints, lawmakers find ways in the defense budget to take care of their agendas. Or, as former defense secretary Robert M. Gates puts it in his new book, “Duty,” the “single-minded parochial self-interest of so many members of Congress.”