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A Skeptic's Analysis of the HASC's NDAA

 
Photograph of Congressman Howard P.
 Photo: HASC Chairman Buck McKeon

At various levels of analysis and detail, I have been observing the work of the House and Senate Armed Services Committees since the mid-1970s.  Their primary annual legislative output is what these days is called the National Defense Authorization Act ("NDAA").  Over the decades, those two committees have gone through various iterations of prevailing legislative behaviors, but rarely have they presented a serious, let alone fundamental, challenge to business as usual in the Pentagon. 

This year I observed the open mark-ups of the House Armed Services Committee (HASC) and read through its committee report for its 2015 version of the NDAA.  The primary characteristic that stood out to me was the committee's collective hypocrisy.   There were surely individual members who appeared to me to be trying to genuinely (and competently) take on real defense issues, such  as Congresswoman Jackie Speier (D-CA) who offered two very modest but overall worthwhile amendments addressing the headlong rush to buy incompletely tested Littoral Combat Ships.  However, I also found three predominant characteristics that defined--at least to me--the HASC's collective, contemporary approach to legislating on defense issues: 1) sham transparency, 2) phony oversight and 3) lots of pork while claiming there is none.

I address these three findings in a commentary published by David Axe's "War Is Boring" at Medium.com.

This commentary is the first of a series addressing what I observe to be defining characteristics of the work of each of Congress' four defense committees.

(For those who would like to see more details on the hypocrisy I found in the HASC's 2015 NDAA, the somewhat longer original draft of this first commentary is reproduced at the end of the text as published by "War Is Boring.")
Medium.com/War-Is-Boring
June 26, 2014

The House of Representatives' Defense Authorization Is a Wasteful Mess

Pork-stuffed House military spending bill lacks transparency, oversight

Winslow Wheeler

Last month by overwhelming votes, the House Armed Services Committee and then the full House of Representatives endorsed HR 4435, the National Defense Authorization Act for 2015.

The May 7 vote in the committee was a unanimous, bipartisan 61 to zero. So proud were the panel members of their handiwork that they made the bill a tribute to the retiring chairman, Rep. Buck McKeon, a California Republican.

After debating the bill over three days and adopting various amendments-many of them inconsequential-both Republicans and Democrats in the House overwhelming, though not unanimously, endorsed the bill on May 22. It passed with a vote of 325 to 98.

Don't take the lopsided support for the bill to mean that it represents truly thoughtful, bipartisan legislating. Instead, it shows that dysfunction in Congress remains as bad as ever . in both parties.

Advertised as "transparent," the process that produced the bill was opaque and duplicitous. Some observers made much of the fact that the House Armed Services Committee held its subcommittee and full committee mark-ups of the bill in public. Legislators and others touted the willingness to work in the open-in the "sunshine"-as something the Senate Armed Services Committee should emulate.

In truth, the HASC bill is riddled with important but unexplained decisions that representatives made behind closed doors. The only part of the process that occurred in the sunshine, so to speak, was the superficial, cursory debate of various amendments with many members-as usual-reading off their staff-prepared talking points.

The bill calls for hundreds of briefings and reports. But it's not an example of effective oversight-rather, the pursuit of material agendas. The House Armed Services Committee preoccupies itself with inept posturing and the selfish pursuit of vested interest, all behind a veil of sham transparency.

The bill is stuffed with pork. It vividly demonstrates the abject failure of past "reforms" requiring that legislators report earmarks to the public or simply omit them entirely.

The HASC's committee report proclaims that the bill "does not contain any congressional earmarks." That's baloney. It contains hundreds of them.

Opaque transparency

The assertion by some lawmakers that the HASC mark-up was transparent addresses the form of the process, not the content. There was indeed public debate, and the committee made available drafts of the bill, amendments and ultimately its report.

But the public debate was highly stylized, frequently consisting of some congressperson reading off a script their staff had prepared for them.

The committee made public drafts of the bill and amendments earlier than has been the case in the past-but obscured the real import of many amendments, numerous provisions in the bill and even the pages and pages of data in the committee report.

For example, it took some extremely astute work by Taxpayers for Common Sense to appreciate that some seemingly innocent language in the committee report directing the secretary of the Army to brief the committee on the potential benefits of lightweight segmented tactical ladders is, in fact, a "precursor earmark" for a manufacturer in the congressional district of the author of the language, Rep. Daniel Maffei, a New York Democrat.

TCS found 14 such requirements for the Pentagon to brief the committee that the organization was able to link to an author with a vested interest in the subject matter of the briefing. The various subjects include modifications of the Stryker combat vehicle, F-35 cannon ammo <https://medium.com/war-is-boring/fd-how-the-u-s-and-its-allies-got-stuck-with-the-worlds-worst-new-warplane-5c95d45f86a5> , tactical generators, civilian transport, "turbulent boundary layer phenomena," equine encephalitis and more.

The practice is the HASC's way to circumvent Congress' moratorium on earmarks. Because the requirement calls for a briefing, not the direct expenditure of money, it does not technically qualify as, and would not be recorded as, an earmark.

However, as congressional insiders have stressed, the briefing is sure to be followed up-if not actually preceded-by phone calls and letters from members and their staffs urging the Defense Department to effect whatever issue the briefing advocates. There's often an unstated implication that if the Pentagon does not embrace the item under discussion, Congress will be unhappy . if not downright retaliatory.

There's a long list of other activities that HASC members-and especially their staffs-perform very much in the shadows without even the pretense of transparency. This behavior comprises the very nuts and bolts of how the committee operates, such as how it takes money away from spending accounts it doesn't like and gives it to programs it does like.

For example, the version of the bill that committee chairman McKeon recommended contains $5.8 billion in various hardware programs that Pres. Barack Obama didn't request.

They include $796 million to refuel and overhaul <https://medium.com/war-is-boring/the-pentagon-is-playing-games-with-its-570-billion-budget-e93d0a33f4a6>  the aircraft carrier USS George Washington and another $800 million for an amphibious warfare ship not in the formal budget, $453 million for various vehicles neither the Army nor Marine Corps asked for plus more than $420 million for additional U.S. and Israeli missile defenses.

Many of these add-ons were not in the president's budget request, but were in various lists of programs that Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel and the individual military services sent to Capitol Hill seeking-quite openly-to circumvent the regular budget process.

Former defense secretary Robert Gates had ended this wish-list practice, but it came back under Hagel.

The Budget Control Act of 2011 and subsequent congressional actions imposed some modest spending constraints on the total amount available to the bill. There was, ostensibly, a $496-billion cap on basic military spending. So the committee had to find offsets for the "extra" $5.8 billion McKeon and others wanted to spend.

While the committee staff was able to find some specific programs to cut as offsets-for example, buying one fewer Littoral Combat Ship, one fewer KC-46A aerial tanker and reducing spending on the Army's Warfighter Information Network-the staff didn't find enough to cover the entire $5.8 billion.

To make up the difference, the staff did what it has done many years in the past to thwart budget constraints. The committee report contains pages and pages of tables intended to specify how much the Defense Department is to spend, program by program, in various large accounts, such as the procurement account and operations and maintenance.

Buried in scores of pages are items with titles like "undistributed adjustment" and various other only slightly-less-imprecise terms. At best, the report text only vaguely explains the items. But the amounts total billions of dollars.

For example, the tables for the $165-billion operations-and-maintenance account shows 131 instances calling for what the committee describes as a "reduction in contracts for other services." They total $403 million. But the report explains none of them-and doesn't even specify what "other services" means.

These 131 cuts for "contracts for other services" and other items similarly labelled may or may not be referenced in a requirement in the committee report for a GAO report on "contract services," but none-not one-of the cuts in the tables gets explained. These reductions appear not to be specific, informed actions-rather, reductions that the committee arbitrarily imposed and distributed across-the-board in O&M spending accounts in order to save money . on paper.

As a Senate staffer, I had seen this kind of thing happen when staff directors instructed a general reduction but also instructed that they be distributed-masked-throughout the bill.

If you're confused, it's because you're paying attention.

The same tables announce an additional 63 actions entitled "reduction in service contracts for facilities maintenance," amounting to $419 million. The report also makes a cut of $266 million that it describes as "undistributed FY 15 reduction." There are also $69 million in "general reductions" in "unspecified worldwide locations," $205 million in "prior year savings" and "civilian personnel underexecution" savings of $315 million.

The actual committee report explains none of these cuts.

The report's tables also extract $2.2 billion in reductions that the law justifies as "undistributed . unobligated balances." We can assume the "undistributed" cuts come from canceling spending that Congress approved in past fiscal years, but which the Pentagon hasn't had time to actually disburse-yet. Curtailing these past funds might just force the military to ask for the same money again in the near future.

All told, there are 125 pages in the committee report with tables listing these vague or totally unexplained reductions. All of them amount to a $4.3-billion cut in the bill. That is to say, the vast majority-specifically 74 percent-of the $5.8 billion in programs that McKeon added get paid for with various arbitrary, capricious and poorly-justified cuts.

This is not transparency. It's opaque legerdemain to facilitate the addition of spending for whatever programs McKeon and other members of the committee favor.

As for the part of the appropriations process that the committee conducted in public-the debate over amendments-the proceedings were unimpressive affairs. In the videos for the full committee and subcommittee mark-ups, members frequently read written statements or speak from prepared talking points.

These sessions are not debates. They are posturing exercises.
Meanwhile, the actual business of deciding what will be in a draft bill continues to occur behind closed doors. It's no wonder the spending bill itself includes so much vague, confusing language.

On Capitol Hill these days, transparency is a sham-if the HASC report is any indication.

Pretend oversight

The House Armed Services Committee has plenty of staff to uncover how and why decisions are, and are not, made in the Pentagon-and what is the actual state of our armed forces. Data available from the Sunlight Foundation and LegiStorm show that there are more than 40 individuals with substantive, professional responsibilities on the committee staff of the HASC.

In addition, each of the more than 60 committee members has a staffer in their personal office assigned to do defense work. And-most importantly-the HASC leadership has virtually automatic, high-priority access to the thousands of professionals at the Government Accountability Office, the Congressional Budget Office, the Congressional Research Service and the Defense Department Inspector General who can do audits, evaluations and quick-order research.

There's also the advice and information that the HASC and its staff frequently seek from Pentagon contractors, think tanks and the military itself-advice and information which frequently, but not always, serves a political, ideological or material agenda.

Based on these considerable resources, one would expect the HASC committee report on the NDAA to be an extremely important and useful font of insight, information and substantive deliberation on defense issues. Indeed, the HASC report requires 89 separate briefings on a variety of subjects. It demands 210 individual reports or studies separate from the 89 briefings.

While the Pentagon and other executive agencies will be responsible for conducting most of these reports and briefings, the GAO and Defense Department IG must do 36 of the individual reports. This amounts to a huge body of investigatory material-or rather, should.

In fact, the majority of the 299 briefing and report requirements in the HASC report have all the characteristics of those "precursor" earmarks that TCS uncovered. For example, in addition to the briefing that the committee demanded on the subject of lightweight composite segmented tactical ladders-which just happens to be produced in the district of the member who asked for the briefing-there's a requirements for a briefing on the V-22 tiltrotor's potential to serve as the Navy's carrier-based delivery plane.

Not coincidentally, V-22-manufacturer Bell-Boeing is lobbying hard for the Navy to buy tiltrotors for this purpose.

Another briefing addresses the High Energy Laser Mobile Demonstrator, a long-time pork item for my previous Senate boss Pete V. Domenici, a New Mexico Republican. There's a briefing on an obscure program titled "Talon Hate," something called "High Reynolds Number turbulent boundary layers," invasive species management for the coconut rhinoceros beetle in Hawaii and Guam and scores of other projects that reek of what we used to euphemistically call "congressional interest items."

Better known as earmarks. Pork.

In truth, not all of the briefing and report requirements are porky. Some call for information on legitimate issues, such as military suicide, financial management, arms control and wasted spending in Afghanistan. However, these real issue study-requirements are the minority.

By my count, just 11 of the 89 Defense Department briefing demands and 49 of the 174 executive agency report requirements appeared to address legitimate policy issues. I assume the 36 additional requirements for GAO or IG reports are not pork-driven, but I could be wrong.

Despite having huge staff resources available to itself to study and report on an endless variety of important subjects, the HASC instead selects to impose hundreds of studies and briefings on obscure subjects that staff and members can then convert into spending in future budgets.

Perhaps a clear, although unobtrusive, indicator of the HASC's real intent is an obscure section in the bill. Section 334 requires the Pentagon comptroller to report to Congress on "the readiness and cost impacts of the reductions in operation and maintenance funding required" by the bill.

In other words, having effected its arbitrary, unexplained cuts in the O&M section of the bill, the HASC wants the military to explain to the HASC just what it, the HASC, has done. The HASC staff will be doing more important things-attending to those hundreds of briefings and reports on obscure, but very carefully selected, matters.

On military readiness-a fundamentally important subject-the Pentagon's word is good enough, according to the House. No need for any independent, objective review. Oversight at the HASC is as much a sham as is transparency.

Oink oink

Scattered through the committee report are hundreds of "items of special interest." These include many of the briefing and report requirements, discussed above, but they also list other items that look very much like yet more pork.

The HASC added $49 million for modifications to the MQ-1C Gray Eagle drone, $120 million for M-1 tank upgrades the Army did not request and $70.7 million for the M-88A2 recovery vehicle.

The committee also exhorts, but does not specify, more money for the "munitions industrial base." It promotes an "Arctic center of excellence" and then artfully describes, but carefully doesn't specify, where it should be located. The spending bill adds $10 million for a "metals affordability initiative."

The list of special spending items goes on. $50 million for an "industrial base initiative" for medium trucks and $50 million more for heavy trucks, $2.6 million for "feeding technology" and $674,000 more for a "feeding tech demo." Some university will get $5 million for something dubbed a "DURIP program increase." Another $80-million "industrial base initiative" is for body armor.

And there are 20 activities that the report lists as "items of special interest" and adds to the Defense Health Program-but for which the committee declines to specify dollar figures. Remember, a request for a specific amount of money could be an "earmark"-and the bill has none of those, lawmakers insist.

The report also details eight conveyances or transfers of government property. Such transfers frequently mean a windfall price for the private sector-but of course none of them are earmarks, either.

The HASC's NDAA, HR 4435, is full of it. Sham transparency, phony oversight and plenty of pork. However, it's unfair to pick on just the HASC. Congress' other defense committees display many of the same bad behaviors.

 

Congress' Defense Committees and Their Legislation

Part One

The House Armed Services Committee and Its National Defense Authorization Act for 2015: Sham Transparency, Phony Oversight and Lots of Pork

Last month by overwhelming votes, the House Armed Services Committee and then the full House of Representatives endorsed HR 4435, the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) for fiscal year 2015.  The vote in the committee on May 7 was a unanimous, bipartisan 61 to 0.  So proud were the panel members of their handiwork that they made the bill a tribute to the retiring Chairman, Congressman Buck McKeon (R-CA).  The committee retitled the bill the "Howard P. 'Buck' McKeon National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2015." After debating the bill over three days and the adoption of various amendments-many of them inconsequential-both Republicans and Democrats in the House offered their overwhelming-but not unanimous-endorsement of the bill on May 22 passing it by a vote of 325 to 98.

The lopsided support for the bill should not be understood to show thoughtful, bipartisan ("trans-partisan") legislating; it shows instead that dysfunction in Congress remains as bad as ever and embraces both parties.  Three features of the bill, publically cast as positive but on inspection corrosive, make the following apparent:

  • Calling for hundreds of briefings and reports, the bill is not an example of effective oversight but of the pursuit of material agendas.  Informed probing of decision-making in the Pentagon and the state of our defenses (oversight) is not the hallmark of this bill, even though the HASC has at its disposal large resources that should be capable of oversight.  Instead, the committee preoccupies itself with inept posturing and the selfish pursuit of vested interest, all behind a veil of sham transparency.

  • Declared to be free of earmarks (the advancement of spending to pursue the vested interest of members and others associated with them), the bill is riddled with pork. It vividly demonstrates the abject failure of past "reforms" in Congress to require that congressional earmarks be reported to the public, if not removed from legislation altogether.  The HASC's committee report proclaims that the bill "does not contain any congressional earmarks." That's baloney; it contains hundreds of them-yet another example of the lack of transparency.

Not Transparent, Opaque

The assertion by some that the HASC mark-up was transparent addresses the form of the process, not the content.  There was indeed public debate, and drafts of the bill, amendments and ultimately the committee's report were made available.  However, the public debating was highly stylized, frequently consisting of points being read off from staff prepared materials or summarized by committee members frequently looking down at their paperwork to keep themselves on track.  Drafts of the bill and amendments were made available to the public earlier than has been the case in the past, but the real import of many amendments, numerous provisions in the bill, and even the pages and pages of data in the committee report were all withheld from public understanding. 

For example, it took some extremely astute work by Taxpayers for Common Sense (TCS) to appreciate that some seemingly innocent language in the Committee Report directing the Secretary of the Army to brief the committee on the potential benefits of lightweight segmented tactical ladders was, in fact a "precursor earmark" for a manufacturer in the congressional district of the author of the language, Cong. Daniel Maffei (D-NY).  TCS found 14 such requirements for DOD to brief the committee that the organization was able to link to an author with a vested interest in the subject matter of the briefing.  The various subjects included modifications of the Stryker combat vehicle, F-35 cannon ammunition, tactical generators, civilian transport, "turbulent boundary layer phenomena," equine encephalitis, and more. 

The practice is the HASC's way to circumvent Congress' moratorium on earmarks.  Because the requirement called for a briefing, not the direct expenditure of money, it did not technically qualify, and would not be recorded, as an earmark.  However, as congressional insiders report, the briefing is sure to be followed up (if not preceded) by staffer phone calls and/or member letters urging DOD to effect whatever it is being advocated.  And there is often an unstated implication that if the item under discussion is not materially embraced by the Pentagon, there will be some sort of disgruntlement, if not retaliation, resulting from the inaction.  The practice does not trip the congressional definition of an earmark, but it is as porky as ever-and quite underhanded.   (See below for a discussion of still more earmarks in the committee's report.)

In addition, there is a long list of other activities that HASC members and especially their staff perform very much in the shadows-with not even the pretense of transparency, sham or otherwise.  This behavior comprises the very nuts and bolts of how the committee operates, such as how it takes money away from disfavored spending accounts with one hand while giving it to preferred programs with the other. 

For example, the version of the bill recommended by Committee Chairman McKeon contained $5.8 billion in various hardware programs President Obama did not request.  These included $796 million to refuel and overhaul the aircraft carrier USS George Washington and another $800 million for an unrequested amphibious warfare ship, $453 million for various vehicles neither the Army nor Marine Corps requested, over $420 million for additional US and Israeli missile defense and much more.  (Many but not all of these adds were not in the requested DOD budget, but were in various lists of programs that Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel and the individual military services sent to Capitol Hill seeking-quite openly-a circumvention of the regular budget process.  This "Wish List" process had been put to an end by SecDef Robert Gates, but is now being revived to give Members of Congress an excuse to add programs to the Pentagon's budget.

Because the Budget Control Act of 2011 (BCA) and subsequent congressional actions imposed some modest spending constraints on the total amount available for the bill, there was a requirement to keep the spending level of the basic bill ostensibly at $496 billion.  Thus, various offsets for the additional $5.8 billion McKeon (and others) wanted to spend had to be found.

While the committee staff was able to find some specific programs to decrement as offsets (for example, one less Littoral Combat Ship [-$350 million], one less KC-46A aerial tanker [-$226 million], $125 million less for the Warfighter Information Network), the staff did not find enough to cover the entire $5.8 billion.  To make up the difference, the staff did what it has done many years in the past to thwart budget restraints. 

The Committee Report contains pages and pages of tables intended to specify how much DOD is to spend, program by program, in various large accounts, such as "Procurement" and "Operation and Maintenance."  Buried in the many lines of the scores pages of these tables are items with titles like "undistributed adjustment" and various other only slightly less imprecise terms.  At best, they are only vaguely explained in the text of the report; more often they are not explained at all. But the amounts total billions of dollars.

For example, the tables for the $164.5 billion Operation and Maintenance (O&M) account shows 131 instances calling for what the Committee calls a "Reduction in contracts for Other Services." They total $403.0 million, but not one is explained in the text of the report-not even what is meant by "Other Services."  A search of the text of the report uncovered only a requirement for a GAO review of DOD compliance with the committee's past limitations on spending for "contract services:" the committee complained that DOD was ignoring past reductions for such services (whatever they are).  Moreover, the language of that section of the report strongly implied that neither the committee nor DOD seemed to understand what the money was really for.  These 131 cuts for "contracts for Other Services" appear not to be informed, specific actions but instead arbitrarily determined according to some unspecified formula and distributed across-the-board in O&M spending accounts.  I had seen this very practice in closed door meetings of the Senate Appropriations Committee: when its defense bill was found to be too stuffed with pork and other additions, the staff was instructed to effect across the board cuts to use as offsets, but not to make it look that way.

The same tables announced an additional 63 actions titled "Reduction in Service Contracts for Facilities Maintenance" amounting to $419.0 million.  Again, the reductions are not explained in any identifiable fashion, either in the text of the report or in the tables themselves.

The tables also show an "Undistributed FY 15 Reduction" for $265.7 million in Procurement spending; nowhere is it explained what procurement program is to be effected.  There are also $69 million in "general reductions" in "Unspecified Worldwide Locations" and $204.6 million in "prior year savings;" both occur in the Military Construction section of the tables.  Nowhere is it explained what foreign bases or what previous spending programs are to be reduced.

The tables also show various other "undistributed" reductions.  $315 million is removed from the Operation and Maintenance budget justified as because of "civilian personnel underexecution" in the Army, Navy, and Air Force.  Each service takes a hit of $80 million, and an additional $75 million is taken out of Defense-wide spending accounts.  While Congress' defense committees frequently exact cuts using this term as a justification, they are almost never explained, and the offices that requested civilian employee budgets in excess of their needs are never specified.  Moreover, that each military service suffers from exactly the same amount of "civilian personnel underexecution," with defense-wide civilians only $5 million behind, reeks of an arbitrary, across the board cut, rather than one justified by informed analysis.

There are still other reductions in the tables of the O&M, Military Personnel and the Defense Health Program accounts; they are titled "Foreign Currency Adjustments" and total $427.1 million.  For the first time in years, these are actually explained on page 206 of the report, but the explanation raises more questions than it answers.  According to the committee report, its analysis is based on a 1986 GAO report, and the reductions are made based on predictions for the future regarding the relative value of the dollar versus other (unspecified) foreign currencies.  These foreign currency value predictions are in fact speculation, which many private sector investors are extremely reluctant to make because of the volatility of the market, and-strangely-the congressional defense committees always seem to predict that future currency values will always be in favor of the dollar-and therefore an offset can be exacted. 

The report's tables also extract $2.171 billion in reductions justified as "undistributed" "unobligated balances:" $1.399 billion in O&M, $411.6 million in the Defense Health Program, and $360.4 million in Military Personnel.   None of these are explained.  In past years, congressional defense committee reductions for "unobligated balances" have been justified as based on GAO analysis, but when that work has been leaked, it has been shown to be extremely weak and based not on program audits but on formulaic models. 

Moreover, unobligated balances should not be understood to be excess money in DOD accounts; they are better understood as money that has not been expended-yet.  It is spending that may be, but may not even be, behind schedule.  It is money with an intended purpose but for which the pay-out has not yet occurred.  If the money is taken away, the requirement for it remains, and it will have to be re-appropriated in later years.  If the need for the money has actually expired, and it is indeed excess, it more legitimately belongs in the US Treasury as money that is no longer justified as a DOD expense, rather than being used in the DOD budget for offsets for larger DOD spending. 

There are 125 pages in the committee report of these tables containing these vaguely or unexplained reductions; all of them amount to a $4.277 billion cut in the bill.  That is to say the vast majority (specifically 74 percent) of the $5.8 billion in programs that Chairman McKeon added is offset by various arbitrary or capricious cuts that are either vaguely explained or not explained at all. 

Indeed, one can argue that many of the cuts are actually bogus: many may only be deferments of spending, not reductions.  For example, if money is removed from the bill as a "foreign currency adjustment" or an "unobligated balance," but the requirement for the money does not go away (for example, for the purchase of foreign oil the price of which went up not down, or to continue an ongoing program for which expenses are occurring more slowly than anticipated), the money will have to be re-appropriated in the future.

This is not transparency; it is under the table, opaque legerdemain to facilitate the addition of spending that for whatever programs Chairman McKeon and other members of the committee decided they prefer to add.

As for the part of the committee process that was conducted in public (the debate over amendments), the proceedings were most unimpressive affairs, as observed on numerous previous occasions.   In the videos for the full committee and subcommittee mark ups, members can be seen reading off their statements or speaking from (and recurrently looking down to) their prepared talking points.  Note also how the tenor of all the remarks is not one of a business-like meeting (that happens to be publically available) but of a public display of politicians' positions on various matters. 

Over my Senate staff career, I wrote out hundreds of such talking points and some rare occasions would wince in horror as my Senate boss might sometimes misread the points or otherwise make clear he or she understood little about what they were reading off.  While each of the senators I worked for were highly intelligent, extremely hard working individuals, my own and others' staff work for them sometimes served as a crutch for them to get through a public event.  That today's members of Congress spend so much more of their time raising campaign funds, rather than preparing substantively for hearings and debates,  it is no wonder that so many have become even more dependent on staff crutches and have far less command of the subject matters before them.   

The purpose of today's public mark-up sessions events is not so much to debate an issue-to refute others' points and to bring the undecided, if any, to one's own side. Instead, they are opportunities for members to announce and justify their position for the record and be recorded by the media for rebroadcast on the evening news or to be quoted in instant modern media.  These sessions are not debates; they are posturing exercises.

Meanwhile the actual business of deciding what will be in a draft bill continues to largely be done by staff and the committee leadership behind closed doors.   There is indeed public handling of various amendments, and they are publically voted on, but the real business of deciding hundreds of pages of details, what amendments will and will not be considered and voted on, and a long list of fundamental policy decisions (actually almost all of them in a bill) are still conducted very much behind closed doors. 

I can also say that the meetings performed today in front of the cameras are very, very different from the ones I attended in the past when the real business was being conducted.  I have even seen members abruptly change their behavior when they were told the meeting they thought was public was actually closed: The elaborate posturing from prepared notes was instantly dropped and either silence or actual bargaining ensued.  

With the HASC as an example, modern "transparency" in Capitol Hill decision-making on defense issues is a sham.

Pretend Oversight

The House Armed Services Committee has plenty of staff to uncover how and why decisions are, and are not, made in the Pentagon and what is the actual state of our armed forces.  Data available from the Sunlight Foundation and  LegiStorm show that there are more than 40 individuals with substantive, professional responsibilities on the committee staff of the HASC.  In addition, each of the more than 60 Members of the committee has a staffer in his or her personal office assigned to defense work, and--most importantly-the HASC leadership has virtually automatic, high priority access to the thousands of professionals who can do audits, evaluations, quick order research and more from the Government Accountability Office, the Congressional Budget Office, the Congressional Research Service and the DOD Inspector General.  There is also the advice and information the HASC and its staff frequently seek from DOD contractors, think tanks and the Pentagon itself--advice and information which frequently, but not always, serves a political, ideological or material agenda. 

Based on these considerable resources, one would expect the HASC committee report on the NDAA to be an extremely important and useful font of insight, information and substantive deliberation on defense issues.  Indeed, the HASC report requires 89 separate briefings on a variety of subjects, and it demands 210 individual reports or studies-separate from the 89 briefings.  While most of these reports and briefings are required of the Pentagon or other executive branch agencies, 36 of the individual reports are required of GAO or the DOD IG.  This work is a huge amount of investigatory material, or rather it should be.  

The majority of the 299 briefing and report requirements in the HASC report have all the hallmarks of those "precursor" earmarks that TCS uncovered (discussed above).  For example, in addition to the briefing demanded on the subject matter of lightweight composite segmented tactical ladders (which just happens to be produced in the district of the member who demanded the briefing), there are requirements for briefings on procuring the V-22 "tilt-rotor" aircraft to serve as the Navy's Carried On-board Delivery (COD) aircraft (which V-22 advocates have long lobbied for), a High Energy Laser Mobile Demonstrator (a long time pork item for my previous Senate boss Pete V. Domenici [R-NM]), an obscure program titled "Talon Hate," something called "High Reynolds Number turbulent boundary layers," invasive species management  for the coconut rhinoceros beetle on Hawaii and Guam, and scores of other projects that reek of what we used to call euphemistically "congressional interest items," better known as earmarks-pork. 

Moreover, the language used in the committee report to describe these items is riddled with buzz-word gibberish-almost certainly drafted not on Capitol Hill but in a contractor or lobbyist's office.  For example, the description for the Talon Hate "briefing" reads in part as follows: "The Talon Hate program, developed under AFTENCAP, fields in fiscal year 2015 and should provide a unique multi-domain capability to counter threats in the U.S. Pacific Command (USPACOM) area of responsibility (AOR)."  This sort of language continues throughout the long paragraph demanding the briefing. When I pushed pork on Capitol Hill as a Senate staffer, I would constantly get such gibberish from corporate and military service lobbyists; they were seeking committee endorsement of their material agenda, masking the real function, cost and effectiveness of the object at hand with babble like "unique multi-domain capability."  Uncomfortable that I and my pork-hunting boss, such as Senator Domenici, would be embarrassed by such amateurish, advocacy-laden language, I would at least convert the nonsense into a little plain English so someone would know what we were talking about and that we didn't always regurgitate contractor B.S. without at least a little filtering.  The HASC language in its committee report on Talon Hate and many other items suggest that such filtering is no longer done.

The 210 studies the committee report demands are mostly directed at similar objectives.  Subjects vary from which agency is to select Department of Energy facility management to the disposal of excess property at Keesler Air Force Base and many other obscurities.  They reek of being pork-inspired.  But today, because adding money directly to bills for such items has-properly-become verboten, the pork-greedy members of the HASC instead use subterfuge to get what they want.

Interestingly, it is a pork process that has become more under the table and harder to identify than the pre-"reform" period when money was imply added in line items in the endless tables for spending for research and development and procurement.  At least then, the pork was easy to identify, and a little work could tabulate the total cost; today, under the "transparency" regime, it is more deeply buried, and the cost is impossible to calculate. 

In truth, not all of the briefing and report requirements are porky.  Some call for information on legitimate issues, such as military suicide, financial management, arms control and wasted spending in Afghanistan.  However, these real issue study-requirements are the distinct minority.   By my count, just 11 of the 89 briefing demands and 49 of the 174 report requirements from DOD appeared to address legitimate policy issues.   I assume the 36 additional requirements for GAO or DOD IG reports are not pork-driven, but my assumption is not guaranteed to be correct.  In my own experience in the Senate, I found GAO happy to perform pork-derived research (and to be willing to ensure it came to the "right" conclusion), but I cannot say if such attitudes persist in parts of GAO today.

Despite having huge staff resources available to itself to study and report on an endless variety of important subjects, the HASC selects instead to impose hundreds of studies and briefings on obscure subjects that staff and members can then convert to spending in future budgets.   Looking at the actual subject matters at hand and how the committee report expresses itself on them, it is quite clear that the prime interest is not research and oversight but instead is the advancement of "congressional interest items," better characterized as pork. 

Perhaps a clear, but unobtrusive, indicator of the HASC's real intent is an obscure section in the bill.  Section 334 requires the DOD Comptroller to report to Congress on "the readiness and cost impacts of the reductions in operation and maintenance funding required" by the bill.  In other words, having effected its arbitrary, unexplained cuts in the O&M section of the bill (discussed above), the HASC wants DOD to explain to the HASC just what it, the HASC, has done.  The HASC staff will be doing more important things: attending to those hundreds of briefings and reports on obscure-but very carefully selected-matters.  On military readiness-a fundamentally important subject--DOD's word is good enough; no need for any independent, objective review.

Oversight at the HASC is as much a sham as is its "transparency."

More Pork

Scattered through the committee report are hundreds of "items of special interest."  These include many of the briefing and report requirements, discussed above, but they also list other items that look very much like still more pork.  The HASC added $49 million for modifications to the MQ-1C Gray Eagle drone; $120 million is provided for M-1 tank upgrades the Army did not request, $70.7 million is added for the M-88A2 recovery vehicle.  The committee also exhorts, but does not specify, more money for the "Munitions Industrial Base;" it promotes an "Arctic Center of Excellence" (and then describes artfully, but not specifically, where it should be located), and it adds $10 million for a "Metals Affordability Initiative."  The list of items promoted, above and beyond the required briefings, studies and reports, goes on and on.

There are still more items specified in those 125 pages of tables: $50 million for an "Industrial Base Initiative" for medium sized trucks and $50 million more for heavy trucks, $2.6 million for "Feeding Technology" and $0.674 million more for a "Feeding Tech Demo;"  some university will get $5 million for something dubbed a "DURIP program increase;" another "industrial base initiative" is for body armor ($80 million), and there are 20 activities, listed as "Items of Special Interest,"  to be added to the Defense Health Program for which the committee expresses support--and mostly but not entirely without a specified level of spending shown.  Remember: a request for a specific amount of money would be an "earmark," and the bill--the committee professes--has none of those.

There are also eight conveyances or transfers of government property specified in the report.  These frequently can mean a windfall price for the private sector, but of course none of them are earmarks, either.  There are no earmarks in the bill; page 522 of the report says so.

Conclusion

The HASC's NDAA, HR 4435, is full of it: sham transparency, phony oversight and plenty of pork.  However, it is unfair to pick on just the HASC.  Congress' other defense committees evidence many of the same characteristics, and there are some other behaviors that usefully can see the light of day. 

The next part of this series of analysis of Capitol Hill's handiwork on defense matters will take a look at the House Appropriations Committee's 2015 Department of Defense Appropriations bill.

Winslow Wheeler, Director, Straus Military Reform Project, Center for Defense Information at the Project On Government Oversight

By: Winslow Wheeler
Director, Straus Military Reform Project, CDI at POGO, POGO

Mr. Wheeler's areas of expertise include Congress, the Defense Budget, National Security, Pentagon Reform and Weapons Systems

The goal of the Straus Military Reform Project is to secure far more effective military forces and much more ethical and professional military and civilian leadership at significantly lower budget levels.

We would like to thank Philip A. Straus Jr. and family for their generous support.

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