Everyone knows that there's pork in the defense budget bill -- hell, in every big bill that moves through Congress. But how exactly all those useless pet projects get crammed in there, that's been a mystery, at least to me. Over the last few days, long-time Senate staffer Winslow Wheeler has been pulling back the curtain in this trio of tutorials on military pork.It turns out that most military pork -- like the $1.6 million for Lewis and Clark Bicentennial Activities stuffed into the kitty for soldier pay and benefits -- doesn't actually appear in the main body of the bill at all. Instead, the offensive items are tucked inside the "'Joint Explanatory Statement' (JES) that accompanies the text of the bill as it moves through its final stages of congressional approval. Both the text of the bill in final form and the JES constitute what is called a 'conference report' on Capitol Hill," Wheeler explains.
The JES is especially important. Its ostensible purpose is to provide guidance to the executive branch, and the public, on Congress intent and rationale for the various provisions in the legislation. And, indeed, there is often some material that is explanatory. However, most of the document simply lists pork projects...DOD [Department of Defense] is not permitted discretion in implementing the add-ons. For congressional interest items, DOD is specifically instructed that the amounts specified by Congress in the conference report, and its other reports, must be spent unless DOD specifically asks the appropriations committees for permission to change the amount in a reprogramming and the permission is granted. Such permission is rarely sought.According to Wheeler, "there are 2,966 examples [or pork] costing about $11.1 billion" in the JES. Some are baldly offensive, like the $500,000 for the "Westchester County World Trade Center Memorial," or the $850,000 for the "Des Moines Memorial Park and Education Center." But most sound perfectly legitimate -- at least from their titles. Soldiers in the mountains of Afghanistan could very well use $4 million worth of fleece insulated liners. The Walter Reed Amputee Center might have a need for an extra $5.5 million, sure.Regardless, Wheeler argues, they're still pork.
The real problem is that nobody knows the real merit of these and other earmarks, even when they have relevant and useful sounding names. For example, could the $5.5 million for the Walter Reed Amputee Center actually be for a new cafeteria there, or is it for proven-quality wounded veterans care? You are not likely to find a meaningful answer by reading the Joint Explanatory Statement for the 2006 DOD Appropriations Act or, for that matter, any other report from the House or Senate Appropriations Committee.The real problem with pork is that no one knows whether it is good or bad. Virtually none of these congressional add-ons are put through a rigorous, even competent, review process by any objective entity...In short, pork is not necessarily bad stuff crammed into the defense budget by Congress; it is unknown stuff. Its cost and need are only dimly known, if at all, and effectiveness compared to competitors is completely unexplored. The worst part of the pork process is that no one has established whether any specific earmark is junk or very much needed in even larger amounts.Congressional add-ons are included in the defense budget, not because a case for them has been made, but because someone wants them.So how does pork get stopped? A couple of speeches on the Senate floor -- even a scandal or two -- isn't going to help much. What's needed is a more fundamental change, Wheeler contends: Congressmen shouldn't be allowed to insert their pet projects into the defense budget any more. Not without "a written statement on the desirability of the earmark from the manager in DOD." And not without some independent financial review from the Congressional Budget Office.
Some, probably many, in Congress will oppose these suggestions; clearly they would subvert the intent of many members to steer government spending toward selected interests for purposes that may or may not advance national security. However, were there to be in Congress, especially the Senate, members who seek genuine reform, there are tools at their disposal to help them impose their will. Senate rules have been specifically designed to assist them in this regard; all that is needed is the will to do so.It would likely not be a pretty fight, but it would definitely be worth watching. And it would help the country separate the real reformers from the rest.