The Obama administration won an impressive legislative battle when it convinced senators to drop funding for the F-22. One of the key arsenals in the administration's legislative battle kit was a strongly and clearly worded threat to kill bills that funded the Raptor. In its latest Statement of Administration Policy the White House cavils about spending decisions by the Senate appropriators and leaves no one in doubt it will do nothing to stop the bill.
Winslow Wheeler, that freewheeling congressional budget guru, slams the administration for this approach, describing the SAP as "an important document, mostly for what it does not say and the forceful stand it does not take."
Now Wheeler is grumpy that the administration opposes the Senate's addition of $2.5 billion for more C-17s, but he makes an important observation about the administration's tack. It used an elephant gun to kill the big elephant everyone could see -- the F-22 -- but it is now left with the equivalent of pellet guns to deal with the herd of congressional spending additions.
"As a long time Senate staffer who has read these documents for years, my interpretation of it is that the House-Senate conference will listen politely (when it meets after the Senate passes the bill), and then do as it pleases. There is no hard warning that receding to the House on F-35 engine, VH-71, etc. in conference will result in a veto. That may be implied, but appropriators always need to be forcefully reminded when there is money to be spent on programs they prefer," Wheeler said in an email.
How will lawmakers react to the administration’s approach? Wheeler thinks the SAP is "far too wimpy to impact behavior on Capitol Hill; it will not be respected, unless and until Obama or Gates take further action to reinforce the weasel-wording in the SAP. As it currently stands, the SAC-D staff is likely to show it to their chairman saying, 'Look, no new veto threats!'"
On top of that, Wheeler notes that "Gates and Obama have done nothing about, and are clearly succumbing to, other direct challenges to their declared defense priorities. The bill contains typically huge piles of pork - much of it not listed in the committee's list of earmarks - paid for by raiding the spending needed to support the fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan."
Billions of dollars for earmarks for large and small programs will remain in the defense budget, and they will be paid for by reducing spending in other parts of the bill, most notably the account that supports key elements of military readiness.
Overall, Wheeler worries that the administration's careful approach on defense spending may leave earmarks and programs such as the C-17 and F136, which he regards as pork or at least unneeded, "will have succumbed to, even enabled, it all. These behaviors have been occurring for years, and still no one does a thing about them. Until someone does, the pork system on Capitol Hill, and in the executive branch, will remain alive and well. The trophy for 2009 will go to Senator Inouye and the other congressional porkers. They may have lost a few games, but they won the match." (To read a fuller treatment of this, click here.)
Of course, Sen. Inouye and his fellow lawmakers will point to the Constitution, which contains pesky references to the power of the legislature to raise and spend money. But Wheeler and many other Americans will keep the heat on to ensure that money is spent sensibly.