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Rumsefeld testifying on 2006 budget (AP file photo)

Defense budget pork: 2,966 items costing $11.1 billion

ASK THIS | February 09, 2006

Winslow Wheeler, a Capitol Hill veteran of many years, walks reporters through the pork in the Defense budget. He tells how to find it, how it gets there and what to do about it.

Q. What are funds for a Des Moines park doing in the Defense budget? (They’re pork, stupid.)

Q. How do reporters go about finding the pork in the Defense budget?

Q. Pork has been around a long time, and ‘earmarking’ has become obscene. What are some ways to fix the system?

By Winslow T. Wheeler

What do Lewis and Clark Bicentennial Activities, breast and prostate cancer research, and the Des Moines Memorial Park and Education Center have to do with U.S. national defense? Unless Osama bin Laden is hiding in Iowa, not much. Yet memorial parks and commemorative celebrations are typical examples of the pork items that are included in this year’s defense budget.

How does this happen? A review of the “inside the Beltway” pork process and how to end it, by one who participated in it for years, reveals a system where everybody is satisfied – at least everybody in DOD, Congress, and K Street lobbyists’ offices, but that’s not saying much for the welfare of our troops.  

Locating the ‘pork’ in the defense budget is not hard. With 2,966 examples costing about $11.1 billion, the “member adds” in the 2006 Department of Defense Appropriations Bill, now law, are easy to find. There are some examples in sections of the bill that becomes public law. However, most can also be found in something called the “Joint Explanatory Statement” (JES) that accompanies the text of the bill as it moves through its final stages of congressional approval.

Anyone can perform a simple exercise to find the pork. For example, the text of the 2006 JES for Research and Development is 116 pages. A random page flip will lead the peruser to one of many tables that will show the name of the programs requested by the president and – importantly – what Congress insists must be added. There will be hundreds, nay thousands, of these additional “congressional interest items.” That’s the pork.

A group called “Taxpayers for Common Sense” will soon release a study on the pork in the 2006 DOD appropriations bill. Click here for an earlier statement, from December 2005, on the group’s Web site.

When going through these tables, it is quite easy to pick examples that appear foolish on their own face or that obviously have no proper place in the defense budget. However, items that appear to be both defense-related and even useful also occur. Surely, soldiers in the mountains of Afghanistan have a need for “fleece insulated liners.” Just as clearly, an additional $5.5 million for the “Walter Reed [Army Hospital] Amputee Center” would seem both relevant and valuable.

These latter items should still be considered pork. For example, could the $5.5 million for the Walter Reed Amputee Center actually be for a new cafeteria, or is it for proven-quality wounded veterans’ care? You are not likely to find a meaningful answer by reading the JES or, for that matter, any other report from the House or Senate Appropriations Committee. In short, pork is not necessarily bad stuff crammed into the defense budget by Congress; it is unknown stuff.

A major part of the problem is how these mystery add-ons are inserted into appropriations bills; the vetting process, so to speak.

Each year, senators send the appropriations and armed services committees several thousands of requests for earmarks. And each year only a fraction is approved. How do they get whittled down?

First, the requester must gain approval from the top Republican and Democrat on the Defense Appropriations Subcommittee (Sens. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska., and Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii). Without their joint (“bipartisan”) approval, senators can absolutely-positively forget about their “member request items.” When the author worked as a Senate staffer, the top “clerk” on the Defense Appropriations Subcommittee for Stevens repeatedly made it quite clear for the supplicants at the staff level: “If your boss helped us, we did our best to help you.  If your boss didn’t vote for our bill last year, you shouldn’t expect much help from us this year.” Sound like extortion? It should.

Mid-level Defense Department bureaucrats also play an essential role. Stevens and Inouye do not want to be responsible for saying no too many times; so their staffers on the Senate Defense Appropriations Subcommittee simply call DOD staff, in and out of uniform, that oversee specific programs. They ask them if they want the add-on that a particular member has requested. If the DOD contact says no, the item will almost certainly get nothing. If the answer is yes, the item will probably get at least something, assuming the sponsor passes the Stevens/Inouye vetting. Notably, all of this is done in DOD without the mid-level bureaucrats conferring with the Secretary of Defense or even his senior managers.

In short, pork is acquired through an opaque process that seeks to operate in the shadows of government. Items receive little explanation to the public, and there is conscious avoidance of serious, objective review, such as by the Congressional Budget Office for actual cost, or the Government Accountability Office for evaluation of the need or justification.    

In the end, what is required is a process where those seeking to advance their vested interest are not in control of events. The following are guidelines for a solution:

1.      Provide an estimate of the cost of all “member request” items from the Congressional Budget Office.

2.      Provide an overall evaluation by the Government Accountability Office or a similar reputable entity that performs no DOD contracting.

3.      Include in public committee reports a written statement of desirability of the earmark from the relevant manager in DOD (to prevent his circumvention of the DOD/OMB budget review process).

4.      Include a detailed explanation in committee reports of the nature of each earmark and the identity of the requester.

5.      Insist that every earmark that makes it through this process can only be awarded to any contractor after nation-wide contract competition.

Some, probably many, in Congress will oppose these suggestions; clearly they would subvert the intent of members to steer government spending toward selected interests for purposes that may or may not advance national security. However, were there to be in Congress, especially the Senate, members who seek genuine reform, there are tools at their disposal to help them impose their will. Senate rules have been specifically designed to assist them in this regard; all that is needed further is the will to do so.

It would likely be an ugly fight, but it would definitely be worth watching. It would help the country separate the real reformers from the rest.

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