CQ WEEKLY – IN FOCUS
May 5, 2012 – 1:50 p.m.
An Earmark by Any Other Name
By John M. Donnelly, CQ Staff
When the House Armed Services Committee convenes this week to write its new defense authorization bill, it is expected to require the Pentagon to build a new anti-missile battery on the U.S. East Coast — despite the fact that the general in charge of defending the United States from missile attack says the facility isn’t needed.
The new battery would not be cheap. A provision approved last month by one of the Armed Services subcommittees would authorize $100 million just to study possible locations for the missile silos, which the bill says must be ready by the end of 2015 to fire interceptors at an incoming intercontinental ballistic missile. And the $100 million is merely a down payment. Pentagon budget figures for similar projects suggest that the site would cost billions more over the years.
That’s just one of several expensive programs that House Republicans — with the acquiescence of some Democrats — want to impose on a Pentagon that doesn’t want them. The net effect would add nearly $4 billion to the defense budget request this year and create potentially billions more in new bills in later years, even as members — particularly Republicans — decry Washington’s profligate ways and swear to tighten their belts.
The added programs are not earmarks, as the term is formally defined. But some critics say the extra spending on everything from electronic warfare planes to drones and tanks echoes the earmarking tradition, which has lavished money on the U.S. military for programs that were not vital enough to make the president’s budget, but which create jobs in the lawmakers’ states and districts and provide a return on campaign contributors’ investments.
“Ending earmarks has not ended congressional incentives to spend money on parochial projects, and that is particularly true for the defense bill,” says Laura Peterson, a defense analyst with Taxpayers for Common Sense, a nonprofit watchdog group.
Down Payment on Billions
Despite the talk from both parties about fiscal discipline, programs such as the proposed new antimissile site, whatever supporters believe its merits might be, only add to the budget pressures.
The third site in the United States was approved for inclusion in the fiscal 2013 authorization bill by a House Armed Services panel chaired by Ohio Republican
There is good reason to expect its price tag to be in the billions because there are precedents for comparison. The antimissile site that the George W. Bush administration wanted to base in Poland and the Czech Republic would have cost up to $4 billion, the Pentagon’s Missile Defense Agency says. The cost of Bush’s European proposal, which was later scrapped, might have risen further — as military initiatives are wont to do — had the project gotten under way. Indeed, the agency says, the Ground-based Midcourse Defense (GMD) sites that are operational now in Alaska and Hawaii have cost a combined $30 billion.
“This is a project that would cost billions, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it were $10 billion or $20 billion or $30 billion, like the existing GMD sites,” says Philip Coyle, a former director of weapons testing at the Pentagon.
The United States already has spent $149.5 billion on missile defense programs since fiscal 1984, according to the Missile Defense Agency. And over the next five years, the Pentagon wants to raise that total by 29 percent by spending another $44 billion. And that’s without the third site in its plans.
Pentagon officials insist that the proposed missile site is definitely not in their plans. When Senate Armed Services Chairman
An Earmark by Any Other Name
“Chairman, today’s threats do not require an East Coast missile field, and we do not have plans to do so,” Jacoby said.
But the Pentagon’s not requesting something has never stopped Congress from funding it. Indeed, for lawmakers on the defense committees, adding and subtracting authorizations and appropriations is the very definition of their jobs.
“Iran is a threat, and we’ll be using our bill to prepare our military accordingly,”
Beyond the proposed missile site, six House Armed Services panels authorized the spending of hundreds of millions of dollars on numerous other unrequested programs in markups late last month.
All told, the House GOP authorization measure would add roughly $3.6 billion to the president’s request for the Pentagon in fiscal 2013 and $8 billion more than Congress and the White House agreed in last year’s debt ceiling law.
That law required $487 billion less for defense over a decade, compared with the spending planned for those years in fiscal 2011. In addition, the law stipulated that if legislation isn’t enacted this year to reduce the national debt by $1.2 trillion, then another roughly $500 billion will have to come out of defense programs in the coming decade through a budget process known as sequestration.
McKeon and other Republicans say military spending must remain high because equipment needs to be repaired, replaced and modernized after a decade of war. Moreover, despite the end of the war in Iraq and the winding down of the U.S. combat role in Afghanistan, a wide array of threats remain, Republicans say.
“These cuts, deeply damaging to our defense, will hurt everyone associated with the military,” McKeon said in a March speech, referring to the $487 billion in planned reductions. Further cuts through sequestration, he said, “would put this great country in considerable danger.”
Budget Nearly Doubled
Notwithstanding such alarming jeremiads, defense spending in fact has nearly doubled since 2001. In the past few years, military spending dropped only slightly and would go down only a bit more in the next decade even if the $487 billion cut goes into effect.
In fact, at those reduced levels, the defense budget would decrease three-tenths of 1 percent after inflation in those years, according to
“Not only should that be enough, it has to be enough,” Smith said in a recent speech. “Unless we want to come along and make dramatic cuts to mandatory spending and dramatic increases to taxes, it will have to work.”
Even under sequestration, with defense spending declining 14 percent over nine years, the lowest point of spending would be equivalent — in inflation adjusted terms — to fiscal 2007 levels, close to the peak of the Bush-era buildup.
An Earmark by Any Other Name
Against that backdrop, Smith and other Democrats say they won’t support any more money for defense than the debt ceiling law allows. Democrats are likely to make a stand against several GOP additions to the bill, including the new anti-ICBM site and proposed increases to spending on nuclear weapons.
Leading that charge will be
In the Senate, Democrats’ narrow majority may give them more clout to prevent increases in defense spending, particularly on programs such as the East Coast antimissile site. The Senate Armed Services Committee begins writing its defense authorization bill later this month. And while defense appropriators in the House mark up their bill this week, their Senate counterparts probably won’t start the review until late June.
In the House, GOP Armed Services members say that because their new defense authorizations are coming from the committee at large and not from individual lawmakers, they’re not violating the ban on earmarks.
But the effect is the same, critics say. The earmark ban has eliminated small-scale projects from individual members, but it has done nothing about multibillion-dollar initiatives of debatable military utility, they argue.
Says Taxpayers for Common Sense’s Peterson: “Even if you don’t see a lot of the penny-ante earmarks of the past, that doesn’t mean they can’t direct big bucks to pet projects.”
FOR FURTHER READING:
The debt ceiling law is PL 112-25. The House Armed Services fiscal 2013 defense authorization bill is