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Follow the Defense Dollars -- If You Can

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Remember last summer when everyone thought the sky was falling?

The mounting budget deficit had Chicken Littles on both sides of the aisle crying doom and gloom. There was hemming and hawing and the obligatory appointment of a special-joint-bipartisan-really-important Congressional panel.

Super Committee, anyone?

It seems the more things change, the more they stay exactly the same.

As Congress gets down this month to approving hundreds of billions of dollars in national security programs and policies, the deficit is hardly front and center.

The version of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) that the House of Representatives passed Friday is more than $3 billion fatter than President Obama's defense budget request and about $58 billion more than the potential automatic cut established by the House-approved budget deal from last year.

Seriously?

The defense bill gets passed every year, authorizing the Pentagon to move troops around, build new bases, buy more fighter jets, battleships and everything else that makes the U.S. far and away the owner of the world's most expensive military.

With the Senate beginning to take up its version of the NDAA on Tuesday, it's a good time to remember why it's important to "follow the money" if you really want to understand how Congress works.

The House deliberations gave us a great example. Leading up to the NDAA vote, the House and Senate Appropriations Committees had already canceled funding for a $6 billion plutonium laboratory . The committees agreed with a Pentagon and the National Nuclear Security Administration recommendation that the proposed facility at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico was unnecessary.

For once, it seemed reasonable heads had prevailed. It made no sense to put money toward a facility that would produce nuclear warhead components when we already have more than enough components stockpiled, and we're operating under treaties that call for the U.S. to reduce its nuclear arsenal.

Then Rep. Mike Turner (R-Ohio) added provisions to the NDAA that took the money for the plutonium lab that had been cut from the Department of Energy's budget and added it to the Department of Defense's budget.

Project On Government Oversight (POGO) Executive Director Danielle Brian and Nickolas Roth of the Center for International Security Studies wondered on The Hill's Congress Blog why Turner worked so hard to save a facility that no one else seemed to want.

However, if you follow the money, you can see why Turner might have an interest in what happens at Los Alamos. A cursory look at Turner's contributions on OpenSecrets.org during this election cycle show he has received at least $70,000 from companies that either have ties to the Los Alamos National Laboratory or do work in related areas and could conceivably work on future projects with the lab. His contributors include Bechtel and Babcock & Wilcox, which manage the Los Alamos lab.

Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) offered an amendment that would have cut the money for the Los Alamos plutonium facility out of the defense budget, but the amendment failed to get to the floor for a vote.

We hope that this week when the Senate Armed Services Committee marks up its NDAA bill it will not follow Turner's lead. But we may not know for days or weeks, because the committee will likely do the public's business on the NDAA behind closed doors once again. Unless Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.) decides to allow the public in on what bill and amendments will be debated -- or five more senators vote against closing the markup this year -- the public will be shut out as the committee decides how hundreds of billions of taxpayer dollars should be spent. [Go to OpenNDAA.org to see which senators voted to close the hearings and which voted to open them up last year.]

What happens when Congress does the public's business in secret? The well-connected corporate lobbyists, fundraisers and campaign contributors are the ones who benefit the most because of their insider access. If a senator pulls a Turner-esque move to add something to the NDAA, we won't know about it until after the fact.

It makes you wonder what the Senate Armed Services Committee is trying to hide.

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