A Ray of Light from Senator Durbin’s Defense Subcommittee: Will It Brighten or Fade?

photo by Flickr user Beth Jusino https://secure.flickr.com/photos/zenobia_joy/3443217077
Photo by Flickr user Beth Jusino

When members of Congress show even faint signs of departing from their habitual abuse of the public purse, it merits attention.

Senators and Representatives have worked hard and long to earn the public’s contempt. Some of their worst work is inflicted on the defense budget: They plead poverty when Pentagon spending rivals the peak of the Ronald Reagan spend-up; they pack military spending bills with pork while pretending there is none; they proclaim “support for the troops” while stripping out money from already-inadequate training budgets and from huge repair backlogs of broken and poorly maintained weapons and vehicles. Meanwhile, they shovel money in billion-dollar chunks at unaffordable, underperforming hardware boondoggles and then praise themselves for being pro-defense.

However, this year there are three thin rays of hope flickering through Congress’ shadowy, often indecipherable, usually deceptive handiwork on defense bills.

The pleasant surprises come from the Defense Subcommittee of the Senate Appropriations Committee: specifically, its 2015 Department of Defense Appropriations bill, HR 4870, and the Committee Report that accompanies it. The Chairman of the Subcommittee, Richard J. Durbin (D-IL), has clearly had a positive impact, even if modest, on the output of his Defense Subcommittee.

The three rays of light are:

  1. Not all the earmarks in the bill appear to be gratuitous, hypocritical trash;
  2. There were fewer hidden raids on badly needed programs to help American forces fight effectively, and 
  3. A significant—but sadly transient—step was taken to strip billions of dollars in unnecessary programs out of the bill, and at least one badly needed weapon system was added back in. 

Pork

To be sure, the Durbin Defense Subcommittee larded its bill with pork. Just flipping the pages of the committee’s report reveals earmark after earmark.

The Procurement and Research and Development (R&D) sections of the report are heavily populated with earmarks, and there are yet more in the Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) account for war spending. Even the General Provisions section is larded with them.

Subcommittee Chairman Durbin is quite aware that his bill contains many, expensive earmarks. Indeed, he proclaims some of them. In a July 17 press release titled “Defense Appropriations Bill Makes Critical Investments in Illinois Priorities,” he takes credit for adding $1.7 billion to fund “Illinois defense installations and priorities.”

Despite what appears to be several billions of dollars in earmarks, there are two characteristics to the Durbin subcommittee’s work on them that raise the subcommittee above the more crass and hypocritical behavior of the House Armed Services and Appropriations Committees.

First, the Durbin Subcommittee made a significant effort in the Defense Health Program (DHP) section of its report to direct additional medical research to health effects of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The subcommittee’s DHP earmarks include spending for Traumatic Brain Injury Psychological Health, Orthotics and Prosthetics Research, mental health professionals for veterans and their families, Reconstructive Transplantation, Trauma Research, and combat experience-related respiratory, epilepsy, melanoma, sleep and other problems. The subcommittee’s DHP earmarks were clearly consciously directed toward the many health problems stemming from combat service in the wars since September 11, 2001.

However, it remains impossible to discern if all these earmarks were decided on merit, rather than the personal influence of individual Senators. While many of these earmarks were designated for peer review, there is no requirement for a third party, such as the Government Accountability Office (GAO), the Congressional Research Service (CRS) or the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) to review the cost and effectiveness of the medical earmarks—or of the much larger number of other earmarks spread throughout rest of the report. Such a third party review of all earmarks by an independent and competent entity would do much to clean up Congress’ still rampant earmarking of defense bills.

Even lacking such real earmark reform, the Durbin subcommittee deserves credit for directing much of its $781 million in DHP earmarks toward the disastrous health effects of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The Durbin subcommittee also deserves credit for exercising less hypocrisy than the House Armed Services and Appropriations Committees which exploit a loophole in House Rules to assert, quite disingenuously, there are no earmarks in their bills. The Durbin subcommittee makes no such false claim. (Nor does the Senate Armed Services Committee for its defense bill.) The reason may have more to do with the differences in Senate versus House rules, but it is notable that the Senate’s rules make for a committee report that is at least silent on the existence of earmarks, rather than enabling an outrageously false claim that there are none.

A Few Non-Arbitrary Cuts

All four congressional defense committees have made themselves notorious for proclaiming they “support the troops” with spending for military readiness (such as for training, weapons maintenance and facility repairs) while they simultaneously employ arbitrary (“across-the-board”) reductions to cut spending for those very purposes. They also typically have written committee reports that fail to justify or even explain what they have done. The House Armed Services and Appropriations Committee’s bills for 2015 are typical of this duplicitous practice. They extract huge (multi-$billion) cuts in various Military Personnel and O&M accounts, and they use ambiguous technical jargon to note what they are doing without offering any real explanation or justification.

Two favorite notations are cuts labeled “Unexpended Obligations” and “Under-Execution [or Over-Estimation] of Civilian Workforce [or Employees].” Without their explaining what the terms mean or the reasons for the cuts, understand that the former term seeks to imply there is excess money in DOD accounts, and—for the latter-- that there are unjustified civilians in the DOD payroll budget. The committees routinely fail to explain exactly where they found the excess program dollars or civilian workers. The former might actually be justified money that simply has not been spent yet, and the latter can simply be a discrepancy between DOD’s poor record keeping for how many civilian workers are on hand versus the number in a manpower budget request.

What the committees are really doing is using vague jargon to justify cuts, especially in the O&M budget, so that favored programs can be added while keeping total spending in the bill at or just below congressional budget caps. The military services are left with the problem of figuring out how and where to make the cuts. Robbing the very readiness (“Support the Troops”) accounts that Congress proclaims it is backing—sometimes even increasing--is the inevitable result.

Commendably, the staffers of the Durbin subcommittee specified how and where (and in some cases why) to make cuts that were specifically targeted. The Durbin subcommittee’s work on the Defense-
Wide portion of the O&M budget contains seven individual cuts (varying from $3 to $18 million) in specific program activities, justified as having to do with “Overestimation of civilian full-time equivalent targets.” Moreover, the committee report’s text explains the actions in an informative discussion on pages 47 and 48.

Unfortunately, however, such quality staff work did not extend to the subcommittee’s handling of other O&M accounts. The report’s entries for the Army, Navy and Air Force contains the usual across-
the-board cuts (designated as “undistributed,” i.e. unaffiliated with any specific program activity) for “Overestimation of Civilian Full Time Equivalent Targets:” for the Army: $70 million; for the Navy: $84 million, and for the Air Force: $200 million. The military services are left to sort it out by themselves; their usual remedy has been to cut each budget activity by a proportionally equal amount.

Also, the Durbin subcommittee made other “Undistributed” cuts amounting to hundreds of millions of dollars for “Unobligated balances” in the Military Personnel account. Also, in Section 8076 of the bill’s General Provisions, the Subcommittee also made an extremely problematic $300 million cut across the entire bill for “savings due to favorable foreign exchange rates.” That cut is made up to 14 months in advance of actual currency exchange rates; it is a virtual guess, well beyond what foreign currency exchange experts would dare predict. Moreover, this action—incredibly—is described in the report as follows: “Section 8076. Grants.-Retains and modifies a provision carried in previous years.” The text of the bill reveals the real effect of these “Grants.”

On balance, the Durbin subcommittee bill is loaded with such arbitrary actions—at least one of them mislabeled. However, that someone on the subcommittee staff had the professionalism and integrity to identify precisely in the Defense-Wide O&M account where the excess spending was found and why it should be extracted is very important. It shows that explained, targeted cuts can be done and that someone on the Durbin subcommittee staff knows how to do his or her job. It is also significant that the staffer(s) was (were) allowed by the subcommittee chairman to do it.

This good precedent should be noted, encouraged and widely expanded.

“$11.7 Billion in Unnecessary Funding”

Senator Durbin proclaimed up front in his press release on the bill that his subcommittee “removes $11.7 billion in unnecessary funding.” Every long journey needs a first step, and that two percent reduction in a $549.3 billion appropriations measure should be considered a token of just how much fluff can be identified in a Pentagon budget request. On the other hand, Durbin and his subcommittee immediately reversed their frugality and added back into the bill almost as much as they cut out.

The selections the Durbin subcommittee made in their add-ons are revealing. $8.6 billion of the $11.6 billion put back into the bill was for hardware in the Procurement and R&D accounts of both the base (non-war) budget and the Overseas Contingency Operations (war) account. These add-ons for contractors included $1.3 billion for 12 unrequested EA-18G “Growler” electronic warfare aircraft.

The Growler is made by Boeing; Boeing is headquartered in Chicago; the aforementioned Durbin press release on pork for his state of Illinois emphasized this specific add-on.

Another major add was $800 million for a San Antonio class amphibious transport dock; it happens to be produced in Mississippi; the “Vice-Chairman” of the Defense Subcommittee is Republican Thad

Cochran, from—of course—Mississippi. One can trace many more of the re-added hardware programs to members of the Defense Subcommittee and the full Appropriations Committee. Based on my three decades of working on Capitol Hill, I can say with confidence that the additions and the membership of specific Republicans and Democrats on the Appropriations Committee are not coincidental.

The Durbin subcommittee did also add $2.9 billion back in to the O&M portions of the bill. The ratio of hardware versus O&M re-adds was almost three to one in favor of hardware. That ratio can be taken as an indicator of the Senators’ priorities for questions of buying hardware versus military readiness.

While the politicians like to call buying more hardware “modernization,” it should be remembered that modern weapons are more complex and require more, not less, training, maintenance and supporting infrastructure (particularly for depot level repairs). To the extent that hardware purchases outdistance spending for readiness, the actual readiness of the force will decline even if the readiness budget increases at anything short of what the more complex new equipment requires. Thus, what widely read DOD analyst Chuck Spinney described as “the rising cost of low readiness” can—and does—result.

In another act of business as usual, the Durbin subcommittee also funded the Pentagon’s budget request for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter with over $8 billion. That such a controversial, problem-plagued, unaffordable program can be so fulsomely supported with even more production, years before its test program will be completed, demonstrates that the political momentum of the program still outweighs concerns about “acquisition malpractice” among the majority of the Durbin subcommittee.

On the other hand, the Durbin subcommittee did add money to save one extremely important program.

In multiple accounts in O&M and Military Personnel, it earmarked a total of $339 million to retain the A-10 “Warthog” in the Air Force inventory for 2015. Easily one of the most pro-defense decisions the subcommittee made—and a quite unusual rejection of advice from the Chief of Staff and the Secretary of the Air Force—the A-10 has distinguished itself in all of America’s wars since Operation Desert Storm in 1991. Unfortunately, the text of the subcommittee’s report did not devote a single word to explain why it was supporting the A-10. The subcommittee physically handles the A-10 issue as if it were an obscure earmark, rather than an important defense decision with life and death consequences for soldiers and marines in combat. (Disclosure: The Straus Military Reform Project that I direct and the Project On Government Oversight, where I work, have sponsored seminars and have written commentaries supporting the retention of the A-10.)

The reticence aside, the Durbin’s subcommittee’s financial support for the A-10 should be considered one of the highlight’s of its work.

In Conclusion

There is much in the work of the Durbin subcommittee that raises real concerns: too often opaque decision-making enables a self-serving spending agenda and a decaying defense at increasing cost.

And yet, there are also signs that a constructive, new pro-defense mentality is emerging. Some earmarks address real defense concerns; elements of the staff work on reductions show real professionalism, and certain of the Subcommittee’s program spending cuts and add-ons are helpful and promising.

What remains to be seen is whether these positive elements can grow under Senator Durbin’s leadership. Three practical questions for future work from the Durbin subcommittee will tell us if business as usual or real reform is prevailing:

It’s up to Senator Durbin to decide.

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

By: Winslow Wheeler, Director (2002-2014), Straus Military Reform Project, CDI at POGO

At the time of publication Mr. Wheeler's was the director of the Straus Military Reform Project of the Center For Defense Information at POGO.