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Those Porky Pentagon Earmarks Never Really Went Away

In fact, the new scheme is even more venal, underhanded, and wasteful.

In past years, Congress has become notorious for adding dubious items we call “pork” to spending bills. That way, senators and House members can advertise themselves to their constituents as bringing home the bacon, while picking up a few campaign contributions from thankful contractors along the way.

This practice was particularly notorious in defense bills, especially, and only became worse during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. After they were exposed spending billions of taxpayer dollars for earmarked projects like museums, artificial lungs, and VIP air transports for senior generals, bureaucrats, and lawmakers, Congress supposedly reformed the practice of earmarking—first in 2007 by the Democrats in the majority, and again in 2011 by the Republicans in the majority, who claimed to have banned them altogether.

In truth, both parties in Congress have simply swapped the pork system for a scheme that is even more venal and underhanded. They’ve circumvented their own rules and are putting even more pork in defense bills than before. They hypocritically proclaim that their bills are earmark-free, while simultaneously boasting about the pork to constituents. They deceptively pay for the hidden earmarks by raiding essential accounts for soldiers’ pay and military readiness, and they readily accept hundreds of thousands of dollars in political contributions from the very contractors who received huge chunks of the billions of dollars that Congress added.

The new pork system is deceptive and complex. It took all of my 31 years of experience on Capitol Hill to fully unravel it, with the help of some excellent research from two outstanding watchdog groups, Taxpayers for Common Sense and the Taxpayers Protection Alliance.

To explain, let’s start with one of the more brazen acts of hypocrisy.

On October 22, Niels Lesniewski reported in Roll Call that 10 senators from both parties announced in a letter to the House and Senate leadership that they wanted to strengthen the existing ban on earmarks and make it impossible for anyone to “bring back earmarks” as President Donald Trump and others have suggested. Their new bill, they said, would impose even more serious procedural blocks on any earmark in any bill. But the bill, the senators’ press release, and their letter are a sham. Another Roll Call reporter pointed out that gimmicks and various porky items in a new Department of Defense appropriations bill gave the lie to the idea that contemporary bills were free of earmarks. And Taxpayers for Common Sense and the Taxpayers Protection Alliance noted at the same time that the new DoD appropriations bill, just signed into law, was already stuffed with hundreds of earmarks costing billions of dollars.

The explanation of Congress’s new, more deceptive and expensive pork system starts with Trump declaring that “America is being respected again” on September 28, while signing an appropriations bill into law that provided $675 billion to the Pentagon. The bill was passed in the House of Representatives with the vote of four of every five House members and in the Senate with almost nine of every 10 senators.

Speech after speech credited the bill with solving the problem of planes that cannot fly, ships with repairs delayed for years, and pay increases for soldiers who deserve more for their service.

Notably, Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois, the top-ranking Democrat on the Defense Appropriations Subcommittee of the Senate Appropriations Committee, praised the bill he helped to write, saying, “The priority of this defense bill is supporting our troops…. This bill shows what Democrats and Republicans can accomplish when we work across the aisle to solve problems.” The chairman of the subcommittee, Republican Senator Richard Shelby of Alabama, who had an even larger hand in shaping the bill, said, “I am proud to present this legislation to my colleagues and urge their strong support.”

The issues they didn’t talk about

Despite numerous speeches in the congressional record praising the defense spending bill, important details attracted not one word of discussion. The bill was riddled with earmarks, and the very pay and military readiness accounts that member after member praised were being raided to pay for it. This is hardly new. In my three decades on Capitol Hill, this behavior was typical—and even self-styled “pork busters” including, I regret to say, the recently passed Senator John McCain, were known to participate. Despite the rule changes in 2007 and 2011, nothing ultimately changed for the better. Today, the money flow for earmarks has greatly increased, and the process that was once evident with a little inspection has been almost totally obscured.

What earmarks? The legislation has none; it says so. The joint explanatory statement (JES) for the defense spending bill, which purports to clarify the statutory text, contains the following on page two: “The conference agreement does not contain any congressional earmarks…as defined by clause 9 of rule XXI of the Rules of the House of Representatives.”

That rule defines an earmark as spending specifically requested by a member of Congress for “an entity, or targeted to a specific State, locality or congressional district….” But simply fuzz up the authorship, recipient, or location of an added spending item, and it transforms from an earmark to a “congressional special interest item.” There are hundreds of those, most of them buried in sparsely worded tables in the JES.

But these congressional special interest items are important: the conference committee that wrote the JES went to some length to cite them to the Pentagon for special treatment; they made the congressional special interest items subject to special rules to prevent DoD from reducing the amount to be spent. That conference committee, appointed to resolve differences between the House and Senate versions of the bill, consisted of senior members of the same House and Senate defense appropriations subcommittees who wrote the original bills, such as Senators Durbin and Shelby.

Taxpayers for Common Sense (TCS) reported that 68 procurement programs in this defense bill received $7.5 billion in new, unrequested spending, a large portion going to the Lockheed Corporation. These are blatant earmarks, as explained by TCS, which also pointed out that the House Defense Appropriations Subcommittee added $5.6 billion to the procurement account for these items, while its Senate counterpart added a more generous $6.2 billion. The bill was “compromised” by the conference committee at a level above both: $7.5 billion.

The Taxpayers Protection Alliance (TPA) tabulated all the add-ons in the bill—not just the 68 in Procurement—above the Pentagon’s request. Again, the Senate Defense Subcommittee proved more generous than the House, and again the final conference was higher than either subcommittee’s recommendation. TPA found 679 earmarks costing $19.3 billion.

Pigs in a poke

Are these earmarks all pork, that is, poorly justified spending slipped into bills to enable a member to boast that he or she can “bring home the bacon” for jobs back home or to appease defense corporations?

The authors of this bill don’t want you to know. In the past, earmarks would specify things like “Intrepid Naval Museum,” “Fort Richardson Running Trail,” or “Fort Huachuca Readiness Center” as the recipient, and for a short period, committee reports identified them and their House or Senate sponsors.

Now, none of that is done. Instead, sparsely worded tables contain vague entries like “Program Increase.” Many add a hint such as designating the increase for “modernization” or “silicon fiber research.” But there is nothing to indicate the state or district, the contractor, or any other specifics. Hence, they do not technically qualify as “earmarks.” However, after the bill is law, congressional staff contact the Pentagon to make sure it knows where the money is to go—and what will happen if it doesn’t.

The rules meant to reform earmarking have made the practice worse. It is now more opaque, and it gobbles up more money than ever. The $19.3 billion TPA found in 2019 absolutely dwarfs the amounts that I and others, such as the Congressional Research Service and the Committee Against Government Waste, found in these bills before the so-called reforms took hold.

Perhaps the biggest joke is the recent debate on whether it would be a good idea to “bring back earmarks.” They never went away. The hypocrisy of the members who opine on this is only exceeded by the cluelessness of the press and the president, who raised it as something to ponder. Then there’s the mendacity of those 10 senators who designed their phony legislation to pretend earmarks are gone and must not be allowed to come back. The last section of their bill reads as follows: “(e) APPLICATION.—This section shall not apply to any authorization of appropriations to a Federal entity if such authorization is not specifically targeted to a State, locality, or congressional district.”

Yes, you are reading that right: the bill exempts any earmark that fuzzes up the targeted location, and under the existing system that would be all of them. The 10 authors of this fraud are the following: Senators Claire McCaskill, Jeff Flake, Pat Toomey, Mike Lee, Ben Sasse, Rob Portman, Joni Ernst, James Lankford, Rand Paul, and Ted Cruz.

Too big to be hidden

Despite the carefully applied opacity, some of the biggest giveaways and their authors are clear. The House Defense Appropriations Subcommittee chairwoman, Texas Republican Kay Granger, was widely identified as behind $726 million added for six additional F-35Cs to be built by Lockheed in her Fort Worth congressional district.

But is this an example of pork? Granger and official Pentagon witnesses would surely testify that more F-35Cs are urgently needed. Others, including myself and colleagues at the Project on Government Oversight, will tell you that the F-35 is an ineffective boondoggle and is not ready for initial operational testing, let alone expanded production. However, despite many critical Government Accountability Office evaluations and embarrassing official and leaked reports from the Pentagon, the majority of Congress rejects such advice and welcomes more F-35 spending. Pork is in the eye of the beholder.

However, such easily identified earmarks are few and far between.

Trump requested $676 billion for the defense bill; the final Conference Report reduced that by $1.1 billion to $674.9 billion. How was the additional $19.3 billion found by TPA for 679 earmarks stuffed into a bill that cut spending?

While publicly touting the “largest pay raise for troops in nearly a decade” and claiming the bill “improves military readiness,” Defense Subcommittee Chairman Shelby, Ranking Member Durbin, and other authors actually cut the budget for both.

They reduced the Pentagon’s request for military pay, the Military Personnel account, by $2.1 billion. That’s right: while praising themselves for supporting higher pay, they actually cut the budget for it. The request was $148.2 billion; the bill provided $146.1 billion.

Praising their handiwork on supporting military readiness, they cut the Operation and Maintenance (O&M) request from the Pentagon by $5.8 billion. O&M is a huge diverse account, but it is also the heart and core of spending for training, maintenance, spare parts, military depots, and everything else that means “readiness.” The Pentagon requested $199.5 billion; it got $193.7 billion.

The way they cut both the Military Personnel and O&M accounts was notably duplicitous. A veteran journalist, John M. Donnelly, reported in Roll Call that most cuts were obtusely justified with explanations such as “Revised Estimate,” “Historical Unobligated Balances,” and “Not Properly Accounted.”

My own research shows $809 million of cuts in those “Revised Estimates.” They are completely unexplained in any text and neither committee report from the House or Senate appropriations committees mentions any such reduction. They appear to have been an invention of the conference committee.

When I worked for a Senate Defense Appropriations Subcommittee member (Republican Senator Pete Domenici of New Mexico), I observed staffers being instructed to phony up reductions with just such a ruse. In one case, to make room for all senators’ earmarks, the subcommittee chairman, Republican Senator Ted Stevens of Alaska, directed the staff to use the earmark dollar total to determine the cuts to be announced. I suspect this crude offset technique underlies the “revised estimates” that appeared out of nowhere.

In both R&D and Procurement, they cut $1.5 billion using “Historical Unobligated Balances” or “Historical Unobligations” as a reason. An unobligated balance is money that DoD has planned but not yet spent: the program may be behind schedule, or it may be on schedule, but the timetable for sending out the money has not occurred yet. Here, some unidentified actor took the money away without a word of explanation as to what parts of the program were being lost or why.

The “Not Properly Accounted” justification meant $706 million in unexplained cuts.

Another term in the bill is “Rate Adjustments”; they cut $124 million. How is this different from “Revised Estimate” or “Historical Unobligated Balances?” The House Defense Subcommittee contains not a word of explanation. The Senate Defense Subcommittee report contains assertions of “Improving funds management: Rate adjustments,” but that is all the explanation you get.

Further indecipherable cuts included “Unjustified Growth,” another $1.1 billion; “Excess Growth,” $468 million; “Underexecution,” $134 million; and “Insufficient Justification,” $35 million.

Yet another ruse was to transfer $2 billion out of the O&M budget to Title IX of the bill that funds the “Global War on Terrorism.” But there, only $1.4 billion of the transferred $2 billion is actually retained. The transfer is a shell game.

There are other ruses in other parts of the bill; the details are mind-bending, but you get the point.

They were cutting military pay and readiness accounts so they could add to the DoD Research and Development (R&D) and the Procurement accounts. That’s where the vast majority of the earmarks—rather, congressional special interest items—are.

In R&D they added $3.9 billion to the Pentagon’s request. The account went from $91 billion to $94.9 billion. In Procurement, they added $4.8 billion to the Pentagon’s request of $130.6 billion. Some of the earmarks in these accounts were huge. The controversial F-35 got over $2 billion in several earmarks, the notorious Littoral Combat Ship got $950 million, unrequested C-130s got $640 million, and so on.

Other unspoken consequences

While money over the years was being redirected to earmarks, something very different was happening at the other end of the world—among our operating military forces.

On January 8, 2014, 29-year-old Liuetenant Wes Van Dorn died when his MH-53E Sea Dragon helicopter, beset with maintenance problems the Navy had deferred, caught fire due to frayed wires and a leaking fuel line. He had been battling for three years to get adequate spare parts and much-needed refurbishment work to bring these old and unreliable helicopters up to minimally safe flying condition. His was only one of several lethal accidents involving the MH-53E resulting from inadequate maintenance, as reported by Mike Hixenbaugh and others in the The Virginian-Pilot and in a new documentary by investigative reporter Zachary Stauffer.

Such accidents resulted from raiding O&M money, such as in 2010 when, for example, Democratic Defense Subcommittee Chairman John Murtha of Pennsylvania cut O&M by a net $2.3 billion to stuff money into earmarks.

Advertising the earmarks they said didn’t exist

Though their legislation proclaims earmarks banned, the authors of the defense bill changed their tune when they self-advertised to constituents.

In a press release from his personal office, Senator Dick Durbin declared, “From Rock Island Arsenal to Scott Airforce Base and Naval Station Great Lakes, Illinois…[t]his bill safeguards…Illinois defense jobs by continuing investments in our state’s defense installations and initiatives.” Durbin took credit for funding nine programs in Illinois, costing $2.8 billion, most of it for Boeing—headquartered in Chicago and the producer of the Navy’s F/A-18 Super Hornet and MQ-25 Stingray refueling drone.

Subcommittee Chairman Shelby claimed he helped acquire $8.3 billion for 25 projects in Alabama.

Granger claimed she helped win over $12.3 billion for Fort Worth—including $9.4 billion for Lockheed’s F-35, $1.8 billion for Lockheed’s C-130J, and $1.1 billion for the Bell Boeing V-22.

Note that they each claimed credit not just for their add-ons but for the entire program expense, including both the Pentagon-requested money and money spent outside their states or districts. For example, the C-130 is assembled in Marietta, Georgia, not Durbin’s Illinois, and the F-18’s engines are contracted by General Electric in Ohio. In fact, the entire F-18 is fabricated in Missouri; Durbin is advertising himself not to workers but to the Boeing headquarters.

The ranking member on the House Defense Appropriations Subcommittee, Pete J. Visclosky of Indiana, did not participate in these overblown claims. His website shows no press release listing defense budget goodies for his Indiana district.

The under the table incentives

On the other hand, Visclosky was no shrinking violet when it came to accepting campaign contributions from the corporations benefiting from the legislation’s earmarks. OpenSecrets.org, a project of the Center for Responsive Politics that documents federal campaign contributions, shows that for his 2018 reelection campaign, Visclosky accepted $347,933 from defense-related donors, $59,800 of it from Lockheed. The $347,933 constituted 27 percent of Visclosky’s total campaign contributions, reported as of November 2018. For these and other efforts, Visclosky is getting a promotion: with the Democrats taking over the House next year, he is slated to be defense subcommittee chairman.

Chairwoman Granger accepted $397,560 from defense aerospace and electronics donors, constituting 17 percent of her larger total of $2,371,044 in reported contributions. Granger’s contributions from Lockheed were more than twice Visclosky’s: $136,360.

The Senate Defense Appropriations Subcommittee ranking member, Senator Durbin, does not run for reelection until 2020. The OpenSecrets.org data on his last election in 2014 show that Durbin accepted $236,549 from defense aerospace donors, making him the Senate’s top beneficiary of such donations at the time. Adding other defense contribution categories, he took in $455,799.

Senator Shelby’s total reported defense-related contributions for his reelection in 2016, before he became defense subcommittee chairman, were $334,800. Commensurate with his elevation to chairman in 2018, he received $1,048,000, nearly tripling his defense-related total, and he is four years away from his next campaign in 2022.

Granger, Durbin, and the others will resent any implication that their actions are influenced by the generosity of Lockheed or other defense contractors, lobbyists, and PACs. Indeed, campaign finance laws, as written by Congress, make it hard to conclude that contributions illegally influence congressional decision-making, and a recent Supreme Court ruling makes it even more difficult.

The bottom line

All this adds up to a Pentagon budget process in Congress that is:

  • Dishonest: The bill and its authors proclaim it is free of earmarks, but it has 679 of them costing $19.3 billion according to research from an independent group.
  • Deceptive: The bill’s authors, with huge support from the rest of Congress, proclaim their dedication to better pay for the troops and military readiness, and yet cut those very accounts by almost $8 billion. The reductions are arbitrary and vague, and are used to offset those 679 earmarks. The senators and representatives circumvent their own rules on earmarks by fuzzing up sponsors, recipients, and locations, making the entire process opaque.
  • Hypocritical: Imagine the gall of nine Republicans and one Democrat with their bill to profess earmarks gone and making sure they don’t “come back.” There is nothing new about members of Congress posing as pork reformers and actually being pork enablers; however, these 10 assume an unprecedented level of cluelessness among the press; in some but not all corners, they were right to do so.
  • Mercenary: $19.3 billion in earmarks makes rich material for senators and representatives to advertise themselves, with considerable exaggeration, as successful porkers for their states and districts. They also accept hundreds of thousands of dollars from the contractors, lobbyists, and PACs that benefit from the millions, if not billions, of dollars that the Pentagon never requested.

All this is not illegal, but according to common English, it is venal.  

Winslow T. Wheeler worked in the U.S. Senate for Republican and Democratic senators and in the Government Accountability Office on national security issues for 31 years. After he left the Senate in 2002, he ran the Straus Military Reform Project at the Center for Defense Information, which moved to the Project on Government Oversight in 2012. He retired in 2016.