House taps Navy fund for urinal study
In an unpublicized portion of the House version of the fiscal 2006 Defense appropriations bill, lawmakers added a conservation initiative that would pay for a Navy study exploring the use of "no flush" urinals. Advocates say the product could save thousands of gallons of water onboard ships and at military installations where water is scant.
The initiative, which could help Falcon Waterfree Technologies expand its budding military contracting business, was added by appropriators even as they cut $2.9 billion from operations and maintenance accounts across the military services in an attempt to focus more spending on the global war on terrorism.
The budgetary add-on is illustrative of an increasing tendency in Congress to tack earmarks onto operations budgets, the accounts that typically pay for ammunition, depot repair work and other short-term military needs.
While the total dollars allocated for these projects out of the operations and maintenance budget has not grown in recent years, the number of earmarks has, as lawmakers maneuver to slip funding for a broad swath of pet projects into all areas of the budget.
From 1996 to 2004, the total number of operations and maintenance earmarks in the final Defense appropriations bill has leaped from 60 to 226, even as the price tag decreased. The House and Senate versions of the fiscal 2006 Defense spending bill are not any different, budget watchers said.
"O&M is a really screwy account," said Winslow Wheeler, a senior fellow at the Center for Defense Information and a former Senate Budget Committee analyst. "All kinds of stuff ends up in there, lots of minor procurement."
That procurement usually pays for the "mini-me military industrial complex" -- niche companies that typically take in $5 million to $20 million per year in defense contracts, said Keith Ashdown, a budget analyst at Taxpayers for Common Sense.
But House Defense Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman C.W. (Bill) Young, R-Fla., said conferees on the Defense spending bill will pay particular attention this year to any area they could slash funding -- including earmarks -- when they begin work next week.
Appropriators, Young added, are feeling the budget crunch in the wake of continued emergency spending for operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as the Hurricane Katrina relief effort.
There will be a "very big push in the Republican Conference to eliminate as much funding as we can that is not necessary," Young said. "Everything is a candidate for recission or reduction."
That push could put members' pet projects -- including the waterfree urinal study -- on the chopping block.
The main congressional backer for the urinal earmark is Rep. Vernon Ehlers, R-Mich., a self-described environmentalist who wrote a letter to Young in March, requesting $2 million to pay for the study.
Falcon is located in Ehlers' Grand Rapids district, but the seven-term congressman said he did not specify Falcon's technologies in his request, nor did he direct that the money be used to pay for any of the company's products.
"They are not the only company doing this," Ehlers said in a brief interview outside the men's restroom near the House floor.
Falcon's main competitor in the burgeoning industry is the Waterless Co. of Vista, Calif., a firm that also has a growing federal contracting business. But Falcon, which has former Democratic Vice President Al Gore and former Republican Mayor Richard Riordan of Los Angeles on its board of advisers, has had a Washington presence through lobbyists at American Defense International.
Ehlers, who said he has used waterfree urinals "six or seven times" in the last several months, said he became interested in the issue after learning that the military plans to install new bathrooms at several installations.
The technology, he added, could come in handy particularly in Iraq, where troops "don't have the water to flush a thing."
Several calls to Falcon executives were not returned by presstime, but a company brochure notes that their urinals recently were installed at Forts McPherson and Gillem in Georgia. Other Falcon urinals have been installed at Fort Huachuca, Ariz., and Patuxent River Naval Air Station, Md.
Replacing traditional urinals with the waterless variety at the U.S. Forces Command headquarters would save Ft. McPherson at least $106,000 a year in water and sewer costs, according to the brochure.