Congress’s Deeds Do Not Match Its Words
By: Winslow Wheeler | October 8, 2004
Some observers regard the 9/11 Commission's findings and recommendations as holy writ. Whether they are or are not, congressional reaction to the commission deserves minute scrutiny. Actions speak louder than words.
On Capitol Hill, where I worked for more than 30 years, the most meaningful deeds are the changes legislators put in bills. Senate actions on the defense budget in May and June 2004 say a lot-but not what the senators want you to know. Amendments they added to the National Defense Authorization Act for fiscal year (FY) 2005 reveal distorted priorities. On 23 June, 97 Senators voted for the bill; none were opposed.
The rhetoric used on the floor of the Senate matched that in the Armed Services Committee's published report to explain the bill. All wanted only to ""provide our men and women in uniform with the resources, training, technology, equipment, and authorities they require to combat terrorism and win the global war on terrorism, with particular focus on supporting the conduct of military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.
As written, the bill added $1.2 billion for such items as new helicopters, Stryker armored vehicles, body armor, winter clothing, and armored high mobility multipurpose wheeled vehicles. Hidden countervailing measures, however, started in the bill's operation and maintenance accounts, which fund training, spare parts, gas, food, transport, and other essentials. The committee quietly cut Army depot weapons maintenance by $100 million and removed $1.6 billion from all the services' ""working capital funds"" for transportation and consumables (for example, helicopter rotor blades, fuel, food, and much more). The committee also cut pay for activated civilian technicians by $532 million and reduced other military personnel costs by $276 million. The committee cut another $1.67 billion in anticipation of lower inflation in 2005-despite the Federal Reserve Bank's prognostication that falling interest and inflation rates essentially are a thing of the past. Senator Daniel Akaka (D-HI) took written exception to some of this, but he was ignored (and did not follow through in any case). Much of the $4.2 billion cut was reinserted in the form of military construction projects, an executive aircraft, and hundreds of small procurement and research additions that individual members wanted.
When the full Senate took up the bill, 154 successful amendments fixed no major problems and some even made things worse. Seven amendments simply corrected minor technical errors; 28 amendments—such as Senator Jack Reed's (D-RI) on service academy athletic programs-were irrelevant to major defense issues. Another 30 amendments—such as that of Senators Trent Lott (R-MS) and Thad Cochran (R-MS) to reduce military pay by $3 million to develop a Navy antenna in Jackson, Mississippi—traded pay raises and other funding for pork.
Meanwhile, the Senate increased personnel benefits for selected constituencies with 27 amendments. Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-TX) facilitated disability payments for military academy cadets; Senators Mary Landrieu (D-LA) and Olympia Snowe (R-ME) increased benefits for the survivors of military retirees. Merits notwithstanding, the eight more expensive of these amendments added $1.2 billion in FY 2005 and $8.4 billion over the next five years, which did nothing to undo the $4.2 billion shortchanging of key warfighting accounts.
Another 42 amendments concerned peacetime defense issues: 25 on contracting issues and 17 on ballistic missile defense and nuclear weapons issues. Finally, 35 amendments applied to the war on terrorism, including reimbursement of soldiers for military equipment they had bought themselves and clarification of Army Judge Advocate General's authority in the Abu Ghraib prison scandal. Although these and a few other amendments were constructive, they were of secondary importance.
On 2 June, the Senate added $25 billion for combat in Iraq and Afghanistan, but only for FY 2005. War funding at the end of FY 2004 was $10 billion short according to some analysts. The amendment provided less than half of the $55 billion the Congressional Budget Office estimated to be the most likely cost of Iraq and Afghanistan for FY 2005. Thus, even as they pertain to the war on terror, the actions were inadequate to current and future needs.
And the foregoing is the good news. Closed-door Senate-House of Representative meetings were under way in August and September to resolve differences in the House and Senate versions of the bills. Historically, this is the stage where the worst ideas are hatched.
President James Madison opined that all politicians should be viewed as wolves in sheep's clothing. Indeed, they must be watched closely, which applies equally to intelligence reform. In that case, pork and irrelevancies will not dominate the agenda-regrettably, however, form is likely to take precedence over substance.
 Author's tabulation of the costs of eight amendments from tables 3, 4, and 5 presented in Congressional Budget Office Cost Estimate, July 21, 2004, S. 2400, Ronald W. Reagan National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2005, as passed by the Senate on 23 June 2004, pp. 7, 13, 17."
"First appeared in Proceedings Magazine, Oct. 2004 Copyright 2004, Naval Institute Press, www.usni.org.