Last week Congress voted for more than $4 billion in cuts supported by the Project On Government Oversight and our partners. Our coalition worked hard to garner bipartisan support for several commonsense amendments to save taxpayer dollars, and to oppose other amendments that would have prevented the Pentagon from ending wasteful spending. Here is the rundown of amendments to the Defense Appropriations Act of Fiscal Year 2014 (H.R. 2397) that we cared most about:
Progress made: War funds cut by $3.5 billion
As we scale down the war in Afghanistan, it only makes sense that we decrease funding to related programs. A great step in the right direction was made when the House approved a bipartisan amendment to reduce war funds by $3.546 billion. The Overseas Contingency Operations account (OCO) was established to handle contingencies related to our activities in Iraq and Afghanistan. POGO has long shared the concerns of Inspectors General and others that OCO spending has been characterized by waste, fraud, kickback schemes, and bribery by Pentagon employees and contractors.
Amendment #55, sponsored by Mick Mulvaney (R-S.C.) and cosponsored by Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), Mike Coffman (R-Colo.), and Patrick Murphy (D-Fla.), reduces the OCO to levels that are more in line with the Pentagon’s budget request (see the President’s Budget). The amendment also brings the defense appropriations bill closer to levels mandated by current law (the Budget Control Act).While appropriators had spent above the legal limit in the original bill, they moved money around in a way that made it appear as if they were reducing Pentagon spending: they had shifted $5.3 billion from the Pentagon’s base budget to the OCO. This did not in fact reduce spending, but instead ballooned the OCO account by $5.3 billion more than the Pentagon had requested. Now, the House defense appropriations bill is actually under the Pentagon’s requested budget for both the OCO and overall spending.
However, this tremendous victory was nearly lost. After the amendment passed 215-206, our coalition learned from House staffers that House leadership was planning to revote the amendment—if they could flip enough votes! POGO and our partners worked quickly to ensure all House members knew that we opposed the procedural maneuver and strongly supported the amendment. After a flurry of emails and phone calls, we learned leadership failed to get enough votes to change the outcome—we had won a hard fight for taxpayers—twice.
Congress finally cuts losses on Afghanistan boondoggles
Congress also voted to cut the Afghanistan Infrastructure Fund (AIF)—a fund, designed to help rebuild Afghanistan, that has been plagued by problems and has resulted in, well, nothing much. The programs funded by AIF were intended to garner support for the Afghan government and its American allies, but most of the projects have not even gotten off the ground. Several hundred million dollars appropriated to the fund have not been spent yet, and much of that hasn’t even been obligated to a specific project. It seemed highly inappropriate for Congress to increase funding for troubled programs—especially when the fund is still flush.
In addition, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction has exposed massive waste and oversight problems in AIF programs. In one instance of cost overruns, the budget for a generator project more than doubled as rigging power lines through Taliban-controlled areas of Afghanistan proved troublesome. In 2011, U.S. Army Maj. Gen. Kenneth Dahl, the deputy commander of U.S. forces in Kandahar last year, said of the electricity project, “This is a bridge to nowhere.” And yet it continued. As the military leaves Afghanistan, we can only expect their already-poor oversight of these projects to only get worse.
We lent our support to an ambitious amendment by David Cicilline (D-R.I.) that would have zeroed out the AIF altogether. It failed (184-237), but amendments introduced by Representatives Tim Walberg (R-Mich.), Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.), and Scott Rigell (R-Va.)—all of which were strongly supported by POGO and our partners—were approved. These reduced funding for the AIF on the bill by hundreds of millions of dollars, and prohibit funds from being used to start new projects.
Russian helicopters grounded when contractor is found to be fueling Syrian conflict
POGO is also pleased to see Rosoboronexport’s $553.8 million contract for helicopters in Afghanistan go, thanks to another bipartisan amendment sponsored by Representative Coffman and cosponsored by Representatives Murphy and John Garamendi (D-Calif.). The amendment passed in a landslide vote—346 to 79. In a recent blog, POGO advocated for the amendment because of contracting concerns with Rosoboronexport, a Russian arms broker. Problems include ethical concerns with the company and non-competitive contracts that often result in an oversized price tag for taxpayers. The Russian state-owned company also has provided the Syrian regime with attack helicopters and previously aided Iran’s nuclear arms program. POGO is relieved that American taxpayers will no longer be purchasing helicopters from this contractor.
No more aviation shows abroad
Another smart spending amendment, sponsored by Frank LoBiondo (R-N.J.), was approved with our support. This amendment prohibits funding for aviation demonstration teams to perform outside of the United States. In this environment of economic constraints, this one was a no-brainer.
Efforts to prevent the Pentagon from making cuts
We and our partners also helped to defeat an attempt to prohibit Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) rounds, sponsored by Representative Rob Wittman (R-Va.). We think Congress should not be putting up road blocks to potential paths for strategic savings. Unfortunately, the House approved amendments to continue funding the C-130 and C-23 aircrafts and Lajes Field in Azores Portugal—even though the Pentagon doesn’t wantor need the funding.
Several amendments we support pass…and then fail
Unfortunately, not as much progress was made in trimming down the nuclear arsenal—a Cold War vestige no longer strategic or necessary for U.S. defense. An amendment from Representative Jared Polis (D-Colo.) to strike funding for 14 Ground-Based Interceptors (a missile used to intercept ballistic missile warheads) passed by voice vote, but was later defeated in a roll call vote (in which votes by each Member present are recorded). Three other amendments to decrease the size of the nuclear arsenal we supported were defeated, specifically an amendment by Representative Mike Quigley (D-Ill.) to reduce the number of intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs); another by Representatives Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.) and John Conyers (D-Mich.) to decrease funding for the Ohio-class submarines by 10 percent; and an amendment by Representatives Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), Garamendi, and Polis to cut $70 million of unrequested funds from the East Coast Missile Defense site.
Another disappointment was the ultimate defeat of an amendment to end military-operated propaganda projects abroad. In the introductory remarks on his amendment, Representative Jeff Denham (R-Calif.) outlined his concerns with funding programs such as this one. “It’s crucial in this time of limited budgets that we transfer funds from those programs that are either duplicative or ineffective to the highest priority uses for the department,” he said. Representative Denham went on to thank POGO for its support on the amendment, which, like the Polis Amendment, initially passed by voice vote. It, too, failed after, presumably, opponents had an opportunity to whip votes against it ahead of the roll call vote (185-238).
But overall great strides were made in turning the tide on profligate defense spending which threatens our national and economic security. Our amazing partners and good government champions on the Hill—in spite of great diversity in politics and ideologies—worked together on behalf of American taxpayers. The bipartisan cosponsors of the amendments for smart savings deserve a lot of credit and thanks for overcoming politics for better policies. It’s the way Washington ought to work, but so rarely does. We hope to see this extraordinary transpartisan alliance continue to grow and, over time, restore more sanity in our Pentagon spending.
The Senate began its process for appropriating for the Pentagon this week. Stay tuned.\