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Holding the Government Accountable

Rebels Within the U.S. Federal System

This review first appeared in Ohmy News International on Jan. 9, 2006.

Casually observing the mainstream media in the United States gives one the impression that conservatives support the administration of George W. Bush and the Republicans in Congress. Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, the most strident and damning attacks on the "neo-conservatives" come not from "liberals," but rather from conservatives themselves. Moreover, although many Americans foolishly buy into the argument that they should be afraid of "government," in reality, those in government have provided the strongest resistance to corruption and corporate manipulation.

An excellent example of the rebellion against the present rule of money and privilege in America is Winslow Wheeler. Like the Democratic senator John Murtha, who recently called for U.S. troops to be withdrawn from Iraq unconditionally, Wheeler is an insider with strong ties to the military and the institutional culture that has dominated the U.S. for the last 40 years who decided things have gone too far and has taken a stand. He has written at length about the corruption in the military procurement system, which is so deep that it poses a serious security threat.

Wheeler's unrelenting investigation of corruption in government, "Wastrels of Defense: How Congress Sabotages United States Security," was published not by "Conspiracy Planet," but rather the U.S. Naval Institute, in 2004. Clearly he finds open support for his radical critique at the very core of the system -- the U.S. Naval Institute dates back to 1873. Wheeler's writings are valuable because rather than reflexively dwelling on Republican plots, he pays attention to systemic problems that reduce government to an exploitative system and make it possible for special interests to manipulate it at will. He is unsparing in his criticism of Democrats as well.

Wheeler had thirty years of hands-on experience in the corridors of Capitol Hill before retiring. In 2002, Wheeler wrote a highly critical essay about the response of Congress to the 9-11 attacks that he published under the pseudonym "Spartacus." He lamented in this essay how senators added US$4 billion in useless "pork" projects to benefit their own states immediately after the 9/11 attacks. Senator Robert Byrd (whom Wheeler praises elsewhere for his strong stand against the Second Iraq War) asked for an army museum for his home of West Virginia and Senator Ted Stevens asked for parking garages in Alaska. All this happened at the same time that $2.4 billion was taken away from military training and weapons maintenance. When Wheeler's identity as the author of the article was exposed, he was forced by Republican Pete Domenici to resign. Wheeler now works for the Center for Defense Information.

After leaving a position of considerable influence, Wheeler tried to document how meaningful oversight has vanished for military budgets. He does not ignore traditional abuses in the system, but by probing into the details of politicking surrounding defense issues, he demonstrates irrefutably that the system is internally damaged.

Winslow Wheeler served as a staff member for numerous congressmen and in the General Accounting Office for thirty-one years. From 1996-2002 he was the senior analyst for national defense for the Republican staff of the Senate budget committee. Wheeler served on the staffs of Pete Domenici (Republican, New Mexico), Jacob Javits (Republican, New York), Nancy Kassebaum (Republican, Kansas), and David Pryor (Democrat, Arkansas).

Not only does Wheeler suggest that much of the spending on defense is meaningless for the protection of the U.S., he presents countless examples of how projects that have real security value are undermined or gutted to feed pork projects that enrich their patrons. In contrast to the overlapping systems of review for military projects that guarded against abuse twenty years ago, Wheeler paints a bleak picture of a bureaucratic culture in which military officials, corporate interests, staffers and would be watchdogs cooperate in perfect harmony, considering meaningful questions about problems off-limits. Wheeler writes of pork, "What was once a predictable but part-time activity has become a full-time preoccupation that permeates Congress's activities and members' decision-making processes. Ironically, this occurs even though there is less selfish benefit to pork than most members of Congress and their staff think."

Wheeler describes an attempt within the powerful Defense Subcommittee on the Senate Appropriations Committee to blame friendly-fire incidents involving aircraft on pilots in order to avoid discussing design flaws. The purpose of the subcommittee had become not the pursuit of truth, but rather the defense of patrons.

With regards to wasteful expenditures in the defense bill passed after 9-11, Wheeler notes that the culture in Congress has so degenerated that there was no longer anything odd about the decision of senators to add massive pork to a defense bill passed in a moment of crisis. Calculating how to use defense funds to pay for fisheries, gyms, day care centers and defense systems of marginal utility has become a full-time job for many Capitol Hill staffers. That process is often more important than trying to evaluate the merits of proposals. Therefore, even in a pinch, staffers merely proceeded to do their jobs as they understood them.

Previously, there existed a counterforce to argue for the greater good when congressmen tried to get projects inserted in the budget for their states and their corporate supporters. These days, there is no voice of reason in the room as the budgets are made into fodder for a re-election campaign. Although Senator John McCain makes speeches against waste, Wheeler demonstrates that within the legislative process he makes little effort to counter it.

Wheeler is not merely uncovering personal venality; he argues that what was once a democratic process in the U.S. is absolutely dysfunctional. Whereas defense appropriations bills in the 1980s might have had as many as 200 or 300 pork items, a bill today typically contains thousands, and only very short explanations of their content that are rarely read by the lawmakers themselves.

Wheeler describes the bravery of another era, especially that of Senator Thomas Eagleton, the primary author of the War Powers resolution of 1973 that limited the ability of the president to wage war without congressional authority. He concludes that such bravery and integrity are beyond anything to be found in Washington today.

Of course, the culture in Washington has become far more amicable than it was back in the 1970s. The capital has more gourmet restaurants and forms an environment in which deals can be made without confrontation. Moreover, the process for approving projects has become institutionalized so that special interests push forth the process while congressmen spend their days struggling to raise money for campaigns.

In many cases, the damaging pork spending is not demanded by Congress itself. Instead, spending not included in the original defense budget is introduced later by contractors and their close allies in the Department of Defense bureaucracy to avoid scrutiny. The political confrontation that was so strong forty years ago was exactly what made the balance of powers work.

Now, senators cultivate close friendships with generals in the Pentagon, studiously avoiding any decisions that might affect those relationships. Members of Congress and their staff may do a good job of presenting a message to voters, but Wheeler describes them as, "little more than messenger boys for the Department of Defense personnel who originate and approve the thousands of pork projects congress adds to defense bills."

The Secretary of Defense does not control the process described. If anything, his crime is sitting by as the process of meaningful procurement falls apart. The cost? Basic training, standard equipment, spare parts and relevant technology are ignored to the detriment of military effectiveness. That process has been accelerated by the unquestioning commitment of Vice President Dick Cheney to "privatization."

Staffers have become an independent class that pursues their own interests. The uncontrolled growth of congressional staff forms a fundamental structural flaw. Wheeler writes that although many argue that a large staff is necessary to "deal with the complexity of the modern world," the growth in staff is found not among expert staff or research agencies, but rather in personal offices where they have one goal: "enhancing the member's profile in Washington."

Nevertheless, despite his trenchant critique, a distinct myopia creeps into Wheeler's writing. Wheeler hesitates to come to an overarching conclusion about the phenomena he observes as part of a general breakdown of civil society, citizenship and ideology in the U.S. He hesitates to take the next step and identify a dysfunctional ruling class that lays waste to government through its neglect. Why is it that these staffers can go about their business without a thought to the terrible consequences of special interests? That essential issue might seem more critical that the details of how pork is snuck into the budget.

Nor does Wheeler fully flesh out how corporations force inefficiency onto the government. Of course, the question of how things fall apart in a society is always tricky. We must ask ourselves how a culture of intentional amnesia emerged in America that led to Wheeler's invaluable book being essentially ignored.

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Emanuel Pastreich is a visiting scholar at the Center for East Asian Studies, University of Pennsylvania and a Japan Focus associate.