How Congress can fund its pet projects — even without earmarks.
By: Laura Peterson
Rep. Clarence D. “Doc” Long, a colorful Maryland Democrat who served in the House from the 1960s to 1980s, had a unique take on the Golden Rule befitting a subcommittee chairman of the powerful House Appropriations Committee. “Them that has the gold makes the rules,” read a sign he reportedly hung in the House Appropriations Committee hearing room. Any Washington lawmaker or lobbyist can vouch for the truth of this statement: while other congressional committees set policy, it’s the appropriators, known as the “cardinals,” who hold the purse strings and therefore an outsized degree of power.
Nowhere is this truer than defense, which represents the biggest slice of the fiscal pie Congress controls. The Defense Department is the largest federal agency in the United States, consuming more than half of discretionary spending, purchasing more than $1 billion of goods and services every day, and employing some 3 million people globally. These factors make defense appropriations a “must pass” spending bill, the sheer size and complexity of which attracts lots of parochial projects that spread the wealth to lawmakers’ home districts. In the words of an equally colorful contemporary of Doc Long’s named Charlie Wilson (D-TX), “Anybody with any brain can figure out that if they can get on the defense subcommittee, that’s where they ought to be, because that’s where the money is.”
The defense spending bill is still Congress’s largest, but its riches will not be as accessible to lawmakers as in the past. The 113th Congress faces a decline in defense funding regardless of “fiscal cliff” outcomes. The last Congress passed a moratorium on earmarks — provisions lawmakers add to bills that direct funds to specific projects — after years of scandals and criticism over excessive pork-barreling. And in the recent elections, voters rejected Republican candidates’ assertion that defense spending should stay high in order to protect local jobs. So how will the cardinals of the 113th keep defense dollars flowing to their districts, and what will that mean for defense policy?
A look at the changing constellations in the defense appropriations firmament provides some indication. While the Senate Defense Appropriations Subcommittee will still be run by longtime chairman Daniel Inouye (D-HI) and ranking member Thad Cochran (R-MS) — both of whom also lead the full committee — the House subcommittee saw powerful ranking member and longtime cardinal Norm Dicks (D-WA) retiring and Chairman C.W. Bill Young (R-FL) forced out by term limits. The number two on the Republican side, Jerry Lewis of California, is also retiring, and the names most frequently floated for chairman are Rodney Frelinghuysen of New Jersey and Jack Kingston of Georgia. Frelinghuysen’s district is home to Picatinny Arsenal, a large Army munitions base with almost 5,000 military and civilian personnel, while Kingston’s district contains four military installations, including the massive Fort Stewart Army base.
The biggest dog in the fight for ranking member is also the most controversial. Pete Visclosky (D-IN) is entering his 28th year in the House after winning reelection by a landslide last week. He took a hiatus from his chairmanship of the Energy and Water subcommittee in 2009 while under investigation for his connections to a lobbying firm indicted for funneling millions in illegal campaign contributions to lawmakers in exchange for millions worth of earmarks. The top beneficiaries of the firm, called the PMA Group, were all cardinals: Visclosky, Young, Virginia Republican James Moran, Ohio Democrat Marcy Kaptur, and the king of the cardinals, John Murtha (D-PA).
Murtha, who died in office in February 2010, spent 21 years as either chairman or ranking member of the House Defense Appropriations Subcommittee. As overlord of billions of dollars in defense funding, he gave audience to countless people looking for a piece of the action and directed hundreds of millions of dollars in defense-related projects to his district. He was also the subject of several ethical inquiries. Though the House Ethics Committee report on the PMA affair failed to assign blame to any lawmaker (PMA Group lobbyists pleaded guilty to federal criminal charges), it noted that “there is a widespread perception among corporations and lobbyists that campaign contributions provide enhanced access to Members,” appropriators being the most valued members of all.
Yet the clear predilection for earmarks among other rising cardinals will invite arguments from some lawmakers to bring back earmarks. Sen. Inouye has long claimed earmarks allow him to serve his constituents better than “Washington bureaucrats” and that it’s his responsibility to produce bills that “will attract the votes necessary to pass the full Senate.” But defense bills have not been slowed by the lack of earmarks, and boosters will have an uphill battle considering that President Obama and a majority of House lawmakers support the moratorium.
However, that doesn’t mean that pork is dead. Even if the earmarks moratorium remains in some form, we can count on a profusion of the “committee initiatives” that took their place in recent bills, many of which mimic language for programs disclosed as earmarks just a couple of years earlier. For example, some of the $3 billion House appropriators added to the Fiscal Year 2013 spending bill last May went to programs like Starbase, a children’s education program that was disclosed as a $4 million earmark in 2009. A preference for Army programs is also likely, particularly in the House, where all the candidates either have major army bases in their districts or, in the case of Visclosky, an industry that serves them (Visclosky is head of the Congressional Steel Caucus, which has fought for armored military vehicles to use only domestically produced steel).
No one believes the executive branch should have exclusive control over federal funding, but excessive congressional budgeteering has the potential to alter or even derail defense policy. An extreme example is the aforementioned Charlie Wilson immortalized in the book Charlie Wilson’s War, who funded a war in Afghanistan through earmarks. But in the current zero-sum economic environment, even relatively small additions to spending bills leach money from pressing military needs, which is why so many earmarks are paid for by filching from the operations and maintenance budgetary accounts.
Whatever form it takes, Congress has extra incentive during these lean times to squeeze as many parochial benefits as possible from the defense budget. That would be a mistake; we have to wean ourselves off excessive defense spending to maintain our fiscal health. The past decade’s budgetary buildup and earmark explosion enhanced the perception of DOD as a gravy train, and too many small businesses, research institutions, and consulting companies built their businesses around military spending. This moment marks a critical opportunity to turn that train around. Letting our national defense become an economic engine instead of a fighting one will only weigh it down and make it less able to protect us when called.