The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) estimates that the Ohio class submarine replacement program (SSBN (X)) will cost taxpayers over $90 billion. Knowing that this price tag will break the Navy's budget, leadership of the Navy and Congress are attempting to fund a budget gimmick—the Sea-Based Deterrence Fund—to support the program, claiming that the sub is a national asset that should be funded separately from the Navy’s shipbuilding budget. Now a letter the Project On Government Oversight sent to the Government Accountability Office (GAO) reveals that efforts to establish that fund may have included illegal grassroots lobbying by Navy leadership to garner support.
Federal agencies have a broad authority to directly express their viewpoints to the public and Congress. But Congress has established a number of provisions to limit indirect lobbying, including the Anti-Lobbying Act (18 U.S.C. § 1913), which prohibits the use of taxpayer funds by federal agencies to conduct grassroots lobbying to pressure Congress to support “any legislation or appropriation by Congress”; and restrictions in annual appropriations bills against using funds to support or defeat legislation pending before Congress. POGO previously revealed violations of these provisions, confirmed by the GAO, in the Air Force's efforts to lobby for the C-5B cargo plane program, and testified to Congress that these restrictions are too narrow.
In this case, POGO found instances where these restrictions appear to have been broken by Admiral John M. Richardson, recently nominated to become the next Naval Chief of Operations, and Rear Admiral Joe Tofalo, recently nominated to become Vice Admiral and commander, Naval Submarine Forces; commander, Submarine Force, U.S. Atlantic Fleet; and commander, Allied Submarine Command, Norfolk, Virginia. As described in POGO’s letter, Admiral Richardson directly appealed to attendees of the 2014 Annual Symposium Naval Submarine League to contact their Members of Congress to support the Ohio class submarine and the Sea-Based Deterrence Fund as part of his “Commander's Guidance.” Rear Admiral Tofalo echoed him and offered the support of his office. "Admiral Richardson talked about commander’s guidance and getting the message out. He challenged all of you to go out and interact with folks, whether it’s calling on your own Congressmen, or if you belong to some organization from the Chamber of Commerce to the Rotary Club. I am committed to help you do that," said Tofalo. "If anybody needs help in strategic messaging, then you call ‘1-800-N97’ and let us know. Commander Martin Sprague, would you stand up? Go slip him your business card on a break, and if you need trifolds, priorities briefs, talking points for your Congressman, we are more than happy to support you.” These remarks were also later printed in The Submarine Review, which is widely available online.
The Navy officials may have felt the need to increase support because appropriators historically rejected the use of a separate fund as a budget gimmick. The House Appropriations committee included language again this year prohibiting the creation of the Sea-Based Deterrence Fund. But one of the biggest budget fights on the House Floor this week will be whether Congress will support a likely amendment from Representative Randy Forbes (R-VA) to strike this language. POGO believes that the creation of a separate, off-budget fund for this program is irresponsible. Allowing the Navy to fund this program separately reduces discipline in the program and increases the likelihood of gross cost overruns. Moreover, it creates a bad precedent that any unaffordable weapons program should receive its own separate budget, a budgeting trick that would likely be repeated to fund the Air Force’s bomber program. As our friends at Taxpayers for Common Sense have repeatedly pointed out, every weapons program is national asset, but just as the bomber should be paid for out of the Air Force's budget, this program should be paid for out of the Navy's budget.
As Politico reports, the Navy is currently reviewing whether these lobbying restrictions were violated, but POGO also hopes that the GAO will independently examine whether the Navy improperly engaged in grassroots lobbying to pressure Congress to support this budget shell game.
"Unfortunately we're not surprised to find that the Department of Defense Inspector General did not hold senior Pentagon officials accountable.
The Project On Government Oversight (POGO) wrote the Government Accountability Office (GAO) in June raising concerns that Admiral John Richardson and Rear Adm. Joseph Tofalo had improperly lobbied Congress to gain “special” funding for a submarine program. It appears that, yet again, the DoD Inspector General’s Office limited the scope of its inquiry in order to clear Richardson and Tofalo.
It also appears the IG failed to look into how these actions would be a violation of the Anti-Deficiency Act. We hope that the GAO will reconsider issuing a legal opinion in this matter, given the thin review by the DODIG."
The letter Brad Carson, Acting Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness, sent to the Senate Armed Services committee regarding Admiral Richardson is posted here.