Page 1 of 2

Defense Pork: Putting Lipstick on the Pig

Reformers move beyond talking; now they're offering cosmetic non-solutions.

| Tue Mar. 21, 2006 4:00 AM EST

Article created by the Center for Defense Information.

The Congressional Research Service has produced a new report on “earmarks” in appropriations bills. Otherwise known as “pork,” defense appropriations earmarks continue to climb in both number and cost. Congress’ self-appointed “pork busters” and other reformers have now moved beyond talking at and studying the problem; now they are offering cosmetic non-solutions.

To his credit, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., requested the Congressional Research Service (CRS) to study the “earmarks” in all fiscal year 2006 appropriations bills. This report (PDF) complements a another (PDF) from CRS in October 2005 on previous fiscal years as far back as 1994. If we focus on the earmarks CRS found in defense bills, we find Congress’ record on defense pork, especially since Sept. 11, 2001. During this time of de facto war, Congress’ defense pork has grown from 1,409 individual earmarks in 2002 to 2,847 in 2006 (an increase of 1,438 or 102 percent). The cost for the items grew from $7.2 billion in 2002 to $9.3 billion today (an increase of $2.1 billion or 29 percent).

Advertise on

A further review of the CRS studies shows an interesting pattern: while the absolute numbers and cost of defense earmarks have been growing, the cost of earmarks as a percent of the total cost of DOD appropriation bills has been stable at almost exactly 2.3 percent since the year 2000. While the CRS study does not address this characteristic beyond simply citing the percentages, it is worth noting that no other appropriations bill for any other agency shows a similar stability; in fact, many show very different percentages from year to year. That the DOD appropriations legislation has been stuck at this 2.3 percent suggests a conscious, not a random, pattern. Could it be that the House and Senate Appropriations Committees have settled on a fixed percentage for their pork? Having spent 31 years working on Capitol Hill, this author can certify that such a tacit game plan -- a quota for pork -- is well within the mental capabilities and ethical boundaries of the Appropriations Committees.

Because the total defense budget has been growing during the period of this stable percentage, the cost – and number -- of defense pork items is permitted to grow each year. That would keep the herd of congressional supplicants to the Appropriations Committees and the “leadership” of those committees all happy and satisfied.

That there is any such quota is merely this author’s, not CRS’, hypothesis. Surely, the House and Senate Appropriations Committees will deny it, but any such denial merely begs the question: what criteria do they use to decide how much pork is enough? The pattern is too consistent to readily accept that they just happened to end up where they end up.

The CRS reports implicitly raise some other questions. McCain forgot to ask CRS to study earmarks in authorization bills. He restricted his research request to just appropriations bills, thereby obviating any revelations about the persistent porking in the National Defense Authorization bill, annually reported out of the House and Senate Armed Services Committees. Indeed, exposing the number of earmarks in bills from the Senate Armed Services Committee, where McCain sits as a senior member, would be problematic for the new tack he has taken on “busting” pork.

In the flurry of activity to reform earmarking and lobbying in the aftermath of the Duke Cunningham scandal, McCain and others have introduced “The Pork Barrel Reduction Act.” It would define “pork” as earmarks in appropriations bills that are not “authorized.” By that, he means projects not approved by the relevant Senate “authorization” committee for defense matters, namely, McCain’s own Senate Armed Services Committee. Put simply, according to McCain, it’s “pork” if the Appropriations Committee added it, but not if the Armed Services Committee added it.

There would be some legitimacy to McCain’s distinction if the review process for earmarks in the Senate Armed Services Committee were somehow different from, and superior to, that in the Senate Appropriations Committee. That, however, is not the case. In both committees, the process consists of the committee staff soliciting the view of bureaucrats in the Pentagon. If the latter want, or at least can tolerate, the additional spending, the committee will almost certainly accept the earmark and some spending for it; if the DOD bureaucrat does not want the “add-on,” it will almost certainly be rejected by either committee. Put simply, the process employed by the Armed Services Committee for assessing pork is virtually indistinguishable from that of the Appropriations Committee; McCain attempts to draw a difference where there is none.

Page 1 of 2