THE BLOG
03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Support Our Troops: The Senate Porkers' Approach

In 30 years on Capitol Hill, I never saw Congress mangle the defense budget as badly as this year. Despite that, I see signs that we might be on the cusp of a change for the better.

This past week, as the Senate debated the Department of Defense (DOD) appropriations bill, a tiny bipartisan group of senators stood up to fix an important part of the gigantic mess in our defenses. This minuscule bunch lost at every turn when the votes were counted, but for the first time I can remember, senators revealed previously unrecognized aspects of their colleagues' appalling pork-mongering -- and took action against it. In the process, a few supremely powerful senators who have been corrupting the process were exposed as contemptible frauds. Now, if only the press would notice.

The Hill's most rancid, but heretofore unrevealed, gluttony occurs year after year when Congressmen root around in a large but obscure Pentagon budget account called "Operations and Maintenance" (O&M). O&M pays all of our troops' training, all of the maintenance, repairs and spares for their weapons, vehicles, planes and ships, all of the food and fuel they consume, and all of the upkeep of the bases and ranges where they live and train. In short, when our nation goes to war, as now, O&M is the most important and direct way we support our troops.

For the 2010 budget President Obama asked for $156 billion for routine O&M and an additional $81 billion in O&M for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Because business as usual in the Pentagon is to prefer buying big ticket hardware in the separate Procurement account, O&M requests get shouldered aside and are always much less than the troops actually need. A few examples: Air Force and Navy combat pilots training to deploy are getting about half of the flying hours they got at the end of the Vietnam War. Army tank crews get less in-tank training today than they did during the low readiness Clinton years. Earlier this year, the Navy curtailed at-sea training and flying, canceled transfers of 14,000 sailors, and stopped re-enlistment bonuses to pay for a $417 million shortage in urgent ship repairs. We are short-changing our combat troops so badly that some must use their own pay to buy the patrol packs, gloves, GPS navigators, and body armor they need to fight.

And what did the Senate Appropriations Committee do to better support our troops in the new 2010 DOD Appropriations bill? They cut the already-skinny O&M account by over $3 billion. The Defense Subcommittee Chairman, Senator Daniel Inouye (D-HI), with the full support of his Republican counterpart, Thad Cochran (R-MS), cut Obama's request for basic O&M by $2.4 billion and for wartime O&M by another $655 million.

Is there some trick here? Did they refund the support of our troops somewhere else?

No, Inouye and Cochran have higher priorities. According to their own committee report, they wedged 778 earmarks (pork) costing $2.6 billion into their bill. That didn't count some of their major goodies: one extra DDG-51 destroyer to be built in Cochran's Mississippi but unrequested by the Navy ($1.7 billion) plus $2.5 billion for 10 unneeded, unrequested C-17 cargo aircraft pushed through by a gaggle of senators with parochial interests. To pay for this $6.8 billion mountain of lard without raising the total DOD budget, Inouye and Cochran picked the pockets of selected accounts in the bill. (Inouye calls them "reallocations.") More than $3 billion of those "reallocations" came from the already-bare O&M cupboard.

All that raiding and juggling of accounts is hard work for busy senators but, as TaxPayers for Common Sense points out, it pays off in the form of campaign contributions. (See "Inouye, Cochran Benefit from Earmark Recipients" at the TCS website at http://www.taxpayer.net/.)

This and last week, Inouye and Cochran brought their DOD Appropriations bill up for debate in the Senate. Happily, they met a few bumps in the road. Two senators introduced six separate amendments, each in its own way unveiling the profound corruption of today's defense appropriations process. Though all the amendments lost, they dramatically opened a window onto the clammy corridors of the congressional pork system.

Though he has been a huge disappointment in the past for talking big and acting little on pork, Senator John McCain (R-AZ) authored four important amendments:

• Two amendments stripped $2.5 billion for the ten superfluous C-17 aircraft. The first lost by a vote of 34 to 64. Persisting, McCain moved a second anti-C-17 amendment a week later but lost again just as badly. The pro-C-17 crowd included senators from many states, including California (Boxer and Feinstein), Missouri (Bond and McCaskill), and even Iowa (Grassley and Harkin). Without loud and strong help from Gates and Obama, which McCain did not get, McCain had little chance.

• A third McCain amendment challenged something called the Mariah Hypersonic Wind Tunnel, a $9.5 million boondoggle in Montana. Neither NASA nor the Air Force nor the Army want it. The booster, Senator Jon Tester (D-MT), pathetically asserted it might be needed someday. Of course, McCain lost by a 43-55 margin.

• Lastly, McCain offered an important general amendment requiring competitive bidding for certain earmarks. Horrified that earmark money might end up in the hands of localities and firms not intended by the congressional sponsor, Senator Inouye hastily patched in a substitute amendment riddled with loopholes to end-run the detested competition. McCain lost by more than 50 votes.

Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK) offered two exquisitely important amendments threatening to plant a wooden stake in the heart of the pork system. Coburn was the first senator to catch on to the unconscionable raiding of the O&M budget that Congress' appropriators use to fund their pork; he understood that the first step in unraveling the system was to let the world know that hard core support for the troops was quite literally paying for earmarks. His first amendment prohibited 47 earmarks carved out of the O&M budget costing $166 million, and he clearly stated the money was to be returned to the originally intended purposes, such as training. The Senate's TV broadcast even officially described the amendment as "Restores $166 million for the Armed Forces to prepare for & conduct operations." Shamelessly, the Senate gave Coburn a whipping; he lost by a 25 to 73 margin.

Coburn and his staff also uncovered one of Inouye's more outrageous O&M raiding scams: the Inouye bill assumed that future inflation would be lower than previously projected. The committee asserted its analysis was based on work from the Congressional Budget Office (CBO); therefore, they claimed $294 million could be stripped out of the O&M request as "savings." The only problem was CBO never made any such projection; in fact, it projected future inflation to be higher. Caught red handed, Inouye recanted, but only slightly. He permitted his $294 million O&M raid to be reduced to a $194 million raid.

Can there be a breath of fresh air in this festering abattoir?

Two, actually.

This was the first time any member of Congress took public notice of how the appropriations committee short changes the troops to pay for its pork. In defending himself, Senator Inouye baldly asserted that the O&M budget is "fully funded ... There is no shortage ... [and] every member [of the Armed Forces] has the equipment, gear, training and support they need." Though unrepentant to the end, Inouye was clearly on the defensive as he scrambled to shield himself with phony rhetoric in which the troops in Afghanistan and Iran will find little consolation.

Secondly, despite the huge pro-pork margins in the Senate's voting, there emerged a small bipartisan core of senators who voted for most of the McCain and Coburn amendments. Senator Russ Feingold (D-WI) actually voted for them all. Claire McCaskill (D-MO) supported all but the C-17 amendments. (Boeing has a major facility in St. Louis.) Other Democrats sporadically joined in. Several Republicans helped, for example, Charles Grassley (R-IO); although he stumbled onto the C-17 parade.

There clearly exists in Senators like Coburn, Feingold, and McCain, and maybe McCaskill and Grassley, a bipartisan core that could start assaulting some of Congress' worst abuses. One of these senators may have the skill to build a larger coalition dedicated to giving the taxpayers the defense they're paying for and the troops the support they deserve.

Just as important, Coburn's courageous frontal attack on the O&M raids has handed this potential coalition a winning argument: a vote to enable the pork in our bloated, grossly mismanaged defense budget is a vote against support for our troops. Today, it's the unconscionable raids on O&M; tomorrow, it may be the appalling waste of money and soldiers' lives supporting weapons that don't work.

Who knows, it just might catch on.

Winslow T. Wheeler is the editor of the new anthology
America's Defense Meltdown: Pentagon Reform for President Obama and the New Congress.