Holding the Government Accountable

House Gambles On Current Wars for Defense Industry Earmarks

Defense Lobbyists NDAA Markup 960
(Photo: Katherine Tully McManus)

In his memoir Duty, former Defense Secretary Robert Gates lamented how often Congress transparently did the bidding of the defense industry. “At one hearing, one of my staff was walking behind Senator Patty Murray of Washington and noticed that no one had bothered to remove the Boeing letterhead from her talking points,” he wrote. During an election year especially, the relationship between the defense industry and key congressional authorizers of funds can be almost seamless, resulting in a taxpayer-funded spending spree. That was particularly underscored by the House’s markup of the National Defense Authorization Act, which was literally swarmed by defense industry lobbyists throughout the over 16-hour marathon session.

Unfortunately the committee largely failed to consider opportunities for savings to increase effectiveness. The Project On Government Oversight joined a coalition of groups across the political spectrum to propose $38.6 billion in potential savings. The one notable saving the committee adopted was to cut the blimp that got loose last fall, named the Joint Land Attack Cruise Missile Defense Elevated Netted Sensor System (JLENS).

Instead, the committee passed a disturbing war-spending gimmick. The Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) account, which is supposed to support our troops fighting overseas, has regularly been used as a slush fund for Congress and the Pentagon to pay for favorite programs. But this year, for the first time, funding requested to fight our current wars has been taken hostage to boost Pentagon spending. Specifically, the bill purposely underfunds the OCO account by $18 billion in order to increase spending for additional weapon systems in the base budget (which, by the way, the Pentagon hasn’t asked for), hoping to trigger the need for the next President to ask for an additional supplemental bill to make up the shortfall around April, when this funding would run out. So in this case not only has OCO been shifted by Congress to fund items that should be in the base budget, but the House is hoping to manufacture a war-spending crisis by purposely providing less than the Department of Defense says it needs in order to force even more Pentagon spending. It sounds complicated because it’s supposed to be.

This is outrageous and irresponsible. Those arguing for increased Pentagon spending have appropriately decried readiness shortfalls on numerous occasions. They’re wrong about the true cause of the readiness shortfalls, though, which is waste and mismanagement that only increases with a larger budget topline. “The solution to that loss is not to throw more money at the Pentagon—it’s to make the Pentagon a better steward of the trillions of dollars it already has,” Center for Defense Information Military Board Advisor Lt. Col. Danny Davis recently wrote in The National Interest. Failure to require reform, he said, “will likely only succeed at producing a more expensive version of the declining military we have today.” Even if you don’t agree with that, the worst way to address readiness-fund shortfalls is to shortchange readiness by about $11.6 billion (authorizing $1.9 billion less than requested for operations and maintenance (O&M) in the base bill, $15.2 billion less than requested for O&M in the OCO account on pages 752 and 754 of the bill, and $5.6 billion more than requested for O&M in OCO to fulfill base requirements on page 680) as a way to pay for unrequested items like 11 additional F-35s on top of the 63 already included in the Department’s request.

While there are legitimate reasons to challenge some OCO funding as slush, this gambit is not based on any kind of disagreement with the substance of the Department of Defense’s proposal or a belief that DoD’s request is too high. In fact, House Armed Services Committee Chairman Mac Thornberry (R-TX) seriously considered adding $23 billion to the OCO account—that’s a $41billion swing on OCO funding. To put that in perspective, $41 billion is larger than the proposed annual budget for the Departments of Homeland Security (DHS), State, and Energy. Instead, this is a tactic that puts our national security at risk in order to increase defense spending.

The spending gambit proposed by Chairman Thornberry has already been rejected by Defense Secretary Ashton Carter, who told Senate appropriators that he found it “deeply troubling” that Congress was “gambling” with these funds during a time of war. Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain (R-AZ) has opposed the funding strategy, as have other members of the committee. “You're taking money out of the warfighter's pocket oversees [sic],” Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC) said.

Let’s be clear about who stands to win and who stands to lose. The likely winners are the defense industry—who get rewarded for their campaign contributions with more funding for their overpriced weapon systems—and their lobbyists, pictured above standing outside the markup room. The likely losers are the troops and taxpayers—the people who don’t have the time or resources to stake out Congress to get their way.

These budget gimmicks to increase Pentagon spending are why the House Armed Services Committee is among the defense industry’s favorites. But defense spending should not be used to distribute favors to members’ campaign contributors. We hope the House will revisit this issue when the bill is considered on the Floor.