Holiday decorations are going up in the capital city, a telltale sign that it’s time for Congress to wrap up for the year. And what does Congress typically do before it goes home? You guessed it: pass massive, catch-all bills that hardly make up for its lack of productivity throughout the year.
This includes spending bills for the entire federal government. While the House of Representatives made some progress this year enacting several of its individual appropriations bills, the Senate, unfortunately, did not pass a single one. As a result, earlier this month, congressional leaders gathered behind closed doors to craft an enormous $1.1 trillion appropriations act, referred to colloquially as the “cromnibus.” Among other things, this bill provides over $550 billion for the Department of Defense and over $8 billion for Department of Energy nuclear weapons activities.
Slush Fund Gimmicks
For the second year in a row, Congress has managed to stay within the budget caps enacted in 2011 via the Budget Control Act. If Congress spent more than the caps allow, then this coming January the Office of Management and Budget would issue sequestration orders that would cut spending down to the amount authorized in law. Part of the reason Congress was able to stay within its budget is because the Pentagon has an off-the-books slush fund, called the Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) account, that is not constrained by budget caps.
Congress provided $64 billion in war funding through the OCO account, which matched the topline amount that the Pentagon requested. Despite its name, the Overseas Contingency Operations account is being used to fund activities outside of the theater of combat. For instance, as it has done in recent years, Congress shifted billions of dollars in Operations and Maintenance funding from its capped base budget into its unfettered OCO account in order to skirt spending limitations. This allowed congressional appropriators to load the Pentagon’s $93.8 billion base procurement account with acquisition pork, including billions of dollars for weapons systems that the Department did not request.
Unrequested programs for which Congress provided funding include:
- $1.46 billion for fifteen EA-18G Growler electronic warfare planes
- $1 billion to begin work on an additional San Antonio-class amphibious transport dock ship
- $479 million for four additional F-35 fighter jets (bringing the total number funded to 38)
- $341 million to modernize twelve Apache helicopters and nine Black Hawk helicopters
- $200 million for an additional Joint High Speed Vessel ship
- $155 million for twelve additional MQ-9 Reaper drones
- $154 million for an additional P-8A Poseidon Navy surveillance aircraft
- $120 million for M1 Abrams tank upgrades
- $150 million for medium and heavy tactical vehicles
In its budget request, the Pentagon proposed a number of cost-saving measures, most of which Congress rejected. The Pentagon proposed saving hundreds of millions of dollars by deferring or forgoing the refueling of the George Washington aircraft carrier, a recommendation the Project On Government Oversight strongly supported, but Congress insisted that the refueling move forward this year. The Navy also proposed saving billions by “laying up” eleven cruisers—essentially deferring costly maintenance. Congress rejected the Navy’s full proposal, but will allow the Navy to lay up two of the eleven vessels. The Air Force proposed retiring the Cold War-era U-2 spy plane in order to make way for next-generation surveillance drones. Yet again, Congress said “no.”
One Pentagon “cost saving” measure that POGO strongly opposes is the retirement of the A-10 “Warthog” aircraft. This incredibly effective and affordable platform has proven its ability to protect troops in harm’s way again and again over the past decades. Unfortunately, the Air Force has targeted this system for premature retirement in order to solidify support and pave the way for the F-35. Defense analysts, including those at POGO, have called attention to the fact that the F-35 will not be able to provide the same level of ground cover and troop support as the A-10—not to mention the F-35’s hefty price tag. Congress correctly rejected the Air Force’s plan to mothball the A-10, though it could have gone farther to ensure the A-10's continued operation.
The bill also included increased funding for several nuclear complex boondoggles. One of the most egregious examples of wasteful spending is the Mixed Oxide Fuel Fabrication Facility (MOX) at the Savannah River Site in South Carolina, which was allocated $345 million in this bill. The MOX facility is being designed to convert weapons-grade plutonium into fuel for commercial nuclear reactors. But costs have skyrocketed from $1.6 billion up to $10 billion for construction alone, and the project doesn’t have even a single potential customer.
In its budget request earlier this year, the Department of Energy placed the MOX project on “cold standby” while alternative plutonium disposition options were explored. This spending bill not only increases funding for construction of this nuclear bridge-to-nowhere, but also specifically prohibits funding for “cold standby.” However, the House and Senate Appropriations Committees included a directive to require the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) to provide an independently verified life-cycle cost estimate for the project within 120 days. This estimate would include the cost of completing construction of MOX as well as operating the facility.
Unfortunately MOX is not the only questionable nuclear project that received increased funding this year. The Uranium Processing Facility (UPF) at the Y-12 National Security Complex in Tennessee was allocated $335 million as it enters its tenth year in the design phase. As POGO highlighted in a 2013 report, the UPF project has suffered cost increases, design mistakes, and delays; meanwhile the future mission of the building could be executed at existing facilities in the nuclear complex. This spring, we recommended that an independent study be conducted to assess exactly how many warheads will require remanufactured Canned Sub-Assemblies, which would be one of the most important missions of the UPF.
After almost 10 years in design purgatory, the project was reviewed by a “Red Team” of experts this past January. The Red Team found that the original, “big box” design of the facility could not be completed within budget constraints, and recommended scrapping that design. “Design efforts on the current single facility UPF design should be stopped and redirected while a reevaluation of the requirements and how they are applied is undertaken,” the Red Team noted.
The NNSA has remained tight lipped about the future of the UPF project, but this spending bill provides funds for the UPF design team to incorporate the Red Team’s suggestions. NNSA will also be required to submit a report to the House and Senate Appropriations Committees with a preliminary project plan as well as an updated cost estimate for the facility.
The bill also fully funds the B61 bomb life extension program. The refurbishment of the B61 bombs was originally expected to cost approximately $4 billion, but delays and budget cuts have caused the costs to jump to more than $10 billion. And that doesn’t even include the addition of a new “tail kit” modification which would cost an extra $1.4 billion. This spending bill allocates $643 million for the project. POGO has previously highlighted several problems with the program, including security vulnerabilities at several of the European bases where the B61s are housed, while questioning the military efficacy of these bombs.
Whistleblower Protections and Good Government Reforms
There is some good news in the spending bill: it includes a few whistleblower protections. The first protection, Section 713, prohibits the payment of salary to a federal employee who prevents whistleblowing or retaliates against a whistleblower. And Section 743 prohibits the use of confidentiality agreements or statements that restrict whistleblowers from lawfully reporting waste, fraud, or abuse to a designated investigative or law enforcement representatives.
The spending bill also includes provisions stating that no taxpayer dollars can be used to enter into deals with tax cheats (Sect. 744) and certain convicted felons (Sect. 745). These are common-sense, and necessary, taxpayer protections.
Like a parent who forgot to get their child a present and must now do some last-minute holiday shopping, Congress rushed to enact this omnibus bill. As a result, there was little transparency and no opportunity for rank-and-file lawmakers to amend the final bill. The end result is unaccountable spending on questionable purchases.
Unfortunately, Congress doesn’t enjoy the same return policies many shoppers do, and will end up with some pork and boondoggles joining the ugly sweaters in its closet.