Defense Bill Raids Personnel Funds to Pay For Weapons
BY MATT TAIBBI
“The measure also trims personnel and maintenance accounts from previous versions of the measure to pump up weapons procurement for Afghanistan and Iraq by almost $2 billion.”
Every year about this time a tiny trickle of little-noticed news stories weeds its way into the papers, usually in the back sections. It’s the same narrative every year: Congress lumps all the unpassed appropriations bills together, slaps them full of pork, and quietly passes them (often in the dead of night) while everyone is already thinking about Christmas.
The defense bill is always the worst and most morally reprehensible, and this year is no exception. It should be noted that defense pork is one of America’s great bipartisan traditions. The scheme is the same every year, regardless of who is in the majority: Congress quietly shoves in earmarks for unnecessary and ridiculously expensive weapons programs, and pays for them by gutting the existing budgets for actual soldiers.
What most people don’t understand about earmarks is that they are not achieved by simply adding to the top number for the whole federal budget. Earmarks have to come out of the approved number for that particular appropriations bill. So if you want a highway earmark, the money has to come out of some other highway program.
In the defense bill, it usually works like this: Congress sticks in a few extra airplanes or ships as a handout to this or that member, usually in exchange for his vote somewhere else on some other issue. To pay for those earmarks, the favored targets for cutting are usually two parts of the defense bill: Personnel (i.e. military pay) and Operations and Maintenance (which includes such things as body armor, equipment, food, training, and fuel). Those of you who wondered over the years how it could be that soldiers in Iraq could somehow be left without body armor, well, here’s your explanation. They usually took the armor off those kids in order to pay off some congressman with an extra helicopter or two.
My old friend Winslow Wheeler, a former Senate aide who is now a well-known watchdog on defense spending, points out that this year is no different. There are over 1,700 earmarks in the defense bill that just passed, worth $4.2 billion, but those are
“… just the earmarks they will admit to. Not counted in that tally are the 10 C-17s for $2.5 billion, nine F-18s for a half a billion dollars (in the war funding part of the bill), plus the added $465 million for the GE engine…”
And where did the money to pay for all that come from? This is another annual trick. Usually if you add up all the earmarks, the total amount spent will roughly mirror the amount of the cuts in personnel and O&M. Wheeler found the following:
- $1.9 billion in gross reductions to the Military Personnel (pay) account based on the arbitrary justification that there was need for an “undistributed adjustment,” or in some cases “reimbursables.”
- $2.1 billion in net reductions from the O&M account in the base bill; $1.4 billion of that reduction was based on phony justifications (indirectly based on some flimsy GAO analysis never made public), such as “historic underexecution.” (If you want to review my analysis of this flimsy GAO analysis , see it at http://www.cdi.org/friendlyversion/printversion.cfm?documentID=4535.)
- The House and Senate Appropriations Committees also raided the direct war fighting O&M account in Title IX of the bill by $1.5 billion.
- Total O&M raids, thus, amount to $3.6 billion.
So, $3.6 billion in O&M cuts added to $1.9 billion in personnel cuts = $5.5 billion.
And $4.2 billion in earmarks added to $3 billion for the F-18s and the C-17s, plus $465 million for the Joint Strike engines (which the administration claims it doesn’t want) = $7.66 billion.
It’s always amazed me that this stuff isn’t more of an issue with the right. We’re talking about robbing soldiers to pay defense executives. They pull this scam like clockwork every year and nobody ever says a word — weird stuff.
Check out Matt’s blog at trueslant.com/matttaibbi.