Raids on the War Budget

After more than 30 years working for the Senate and the General Accounting Office, I have observed many senators at close range. At times, I have felt great pride to be a small part of an institution that has responded so well to national crises. At other times, I have felt quite the opposite. What I saw and heard in the Senate chamber on the night of June 6 was very much in the latter category. The content of the debate that night and the legislative result are typical of how the Senate is mangling bills intended to help this nation fight terrorism in Afghanistan, at home, and soon, perhaps, in Iraq.

Just before midnight that Thursday, the press gallery was almost empty. The Senate had been working hard to pass a new $27 billion emergency supplemental appropriation that the president had requested in March for homeland defense and the war in Afghanistan. Earlier in the day, by an 87-10 vote, the senators had invoked cloture to prevent any filibustering. Now, the Senate was getting down to the endgame. Normally, at this point-even if it is close to midnight and members and staff are tired-there is often relief that things are getting done and it's almost time to go home.

There was no sense of accomplishment this time. On the contrary, many members were angry. Red in the face, Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., told his colleagues, "What happened to me should not happen to any of you." Then, he violated Senate practice and called Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., by name, not "respected colleague" or some other honorific. Finally, Domenici spat out, "You can smile if you like, but there is nothing to smile about." McCain demanded "personal privilege [to speak out of turn] since my name was used." But before he could start, Domenici had stormed out of the chamber.

Others were cantankerous as well. Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., said what happened to him was "unfair" and "arbitrary." Oregon's senators, Republican Gordon Smith and Democrat Ron Wyden, thought the problem might cost lives. Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., said sternly, "There is no way to correct this."

Why all the hot tempers? Had someone eviscerated the emergency appropriations bill? Were lives really threatened?

Not quite. The senators were being forced to follow their own rules.

As all 100 knew, when 87 senators invoked cloture on the bill, they limited further debate and other parliamentary shenanigans to just 30 hours. In addition, cloture restricted amendments to those deemed germane, that is, directly related to a specific subject already in the bill. The Senate's parliamentarian alone determines what is germane.

The senators were fuming because, as a result of their own vote for cloture, Domenici couldn't add to the supplemental bill a $50 million loan guarantee for the developer of a small passenger jet from his home state; Dorgan was denied his amendment for $400,000 for power transmission studies that would address, among others, his home state; the two senators from Oregon were unable to prevent the Air Force Reserve from moving a helicopter unit from their state; and Landrieu could not change a funding formula to permit 37 states, including her own, to keep Health and Human Services Department funds they had been overpaid.

All it takes to derail such measures is for some senator to ask the parliamentarian if the proposed amendment is germane. If not, it is barred. Because McCain was willing to ask the question, the rest of the Senate was not being allowed to ignore the rules.

McCain's questions didn't come without warning. Earlier in the week, in the middle of the day when the press gallery was as populated and attentive as it gets during regular business, McCain had declared, "The worst damage, the worst pork-barreling, the egregious stuff done around here is in managers' amendments." (Managers' amendments are adopted in a block by unrecorded votes at the instigation of a bill's managers, usually the chairman and ranking minority member of the committee that wrote the bill.) McCain said he was going to demand separate roll call votes on each amendment in any managers' package. Thus, every senator would be on record in favor of pork, or against it. Also, because managers' packages typically consist of 20 or more amendments and because each roll call vote takes about 15 minutes, McCain was going to inflict some temporal pain on the Senate if it wanted to lard up the bill.

The next day, McCain submitted 20 of his own amendments, each one removing a state-specific item inserted into the bill by the Appropriations Committee. The first was to remove $2 million for a new specimen storage facility for the Smithsonian Institution. The next was to extract $2.5 million for mapping coral reefs near Hawaii. The third would cut $50 million for Agricultural Research Service buildings in Ames, Iowa.

The arguments against McCain's amendments were some of the flimsiest I had ever heard. According to Appropriations Committee Chairman Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., new specimen storage for the Smithsonian was an urgent homeland security need. Sen. Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, said the coral reef study was not pork because the Commerce and Defense departments would compete over the contracts for the work. He also seemed to imply that any other state with coral reefs was welcome to try for this spending. Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, said of the Agriculture Research Service building proposal, "Keep in mind, this is a national laboratory. It is not an Iowa lab." Was he actually trying to say that a federal facility in a state is never pork?

McCain lost on his first three amendments with at least 60 senators voting against him on each one. Were three-fifths of the senators such dunderheads that they bought the arguments against McCain? Of course not, but they knew that if McCain were able to knock out someone else's pork, theirs might be next. It was an unspoken, mutual pork protection pact.

But when McCain's anti-pork offensive fell apart, he reversed course. McCain clearly saw the futility of his amendments and picked up the germaneness tool instead to block the additions that Domenici, Dorgan, Smith and Wyden, and Landrieu were seeking. But McCain used the tool to enable more pork than he busted.

The supplemental bill already included funds for many agencies and programs, including the Agriculture, Commerce, State, Justice, Energy, Labor, Health and Human Services, Treasury, Housing and Urban Development, and Defense departments. Before cloture had been invoked, even more had been added: AMTRAK, federal aid to highways, the Smithsonian Institution, the Fish and Wildlife Service, and more-all at an additional cost of $3.9 billion. Thus, the playing field already was large when cloture closed the door to new subjects.

While McCain kept non-germane amendments out of the bill, other senators were busy putting germane stuff in. In all, they added 42 germane amendments. They included Texas Republican Kay Bailey Hutchison's technical change to enable $10 million for agricultural aid to her state; Kentucky Republican Jim Bunning's $1 million in water services for Kentucky; the Oregon senators' $500,000 to reduce West Coast fishing capacity; and Alaska Republican Ted Stevens' exemption for Alaska from certain unemployment taxes, $464,000 for vocational training for specific Alaskans, altered requirements of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, and changes to mail delivery in Alaska.

And so it went. There were a few amendments relevant to homeland security and the war in Afghanis- tan, such as a sense of the Senate amendment from Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., on how the FBI should be reorganized, but of the 42 amendments added, just nine were in any way relevant. The rest-33-were either completely irrelevant to the war, or consisted of in-state federal spending provisions whose authors either conceded irrelevance to the war or claimed a security connection, even though the provisions hadn't been requested by any security-related agency.

The 42 amendments were not adopted behind McCain's back; one by one, or in bunches, he explicitly approved them. It was germaneness that was culling them, not porkiness. Indeed, if amendments were found to be non-germane, McCain permitted the authors to modify them, if possible, to comply with the germaneness rule. After the managers' package was adopted, in block, by a single unrecorded voice vote, McCain stood up and said, "We should not be doing this."

Congress has been spending money for member items for centuries, so why be concerned now? Because the appetite in the Senate (and the House) for this kind of spending clearly has increased since the Sept. 11 attacks. Despite the fact that we are fighting a war against terror in Afghanistan, and probably soon in Iraq, and trying to defend the homeland from terrorist attack, Congress is paying for members' pet programs by siphoning off funds for military training, spare parts and maintenance for weapons, exercises and even combat operations.

For example, buried in the back of the 2003 Defense appropriation under "General Provisions" were many sections reducing spending for the operations and maintenance accounts that pay for training, equipment upkeep and key readiness activities. Some examples:

  • Section 8082 extracted $338 million in foreign currency savings the Appropriations Committee predicted to occur from a rising dollar between Oct. 1, 2002, and Sept. 30, 2003-a strange prediction given that the dollar has been falling against the euro and the yen.
  • Section 8097 permitted $68 million in unexplained transfers out of operations and maintenance.
  • Section 8100 declared the Defense Department would save $400 million in "reforms" and "efficiencies."
  • Section 8109 reduced operations and maintenance spending for information technology by $19.5 million.
  • Section 8135 cut a whopping $1.674 billion in the operations and maintenance and other accounts to make up for "revised economic assumptions."
The Office of Management and Budget has told the Senate many times that such savings are unlikely to be realized. The Defense Department is unwilling or unable (or both) to be sufficiently aggressive to save the funds. These and similar provisions, amounting to more than $2 billion in the 2003 bill, simply are disguised cuts in the operations and maintenance budget. Despite these sections in its own bill, the Appropriations Committee's report states: "The primary goals of this bill are to ensure readiness and fair treatment of our men and women in uniform."

It should surprise no one that the politicians are saying one thing while doing another. However, in time of war-especially one against something as sinister and unnerving as terrorism-one would hope that at least a few politicians would rise above their normal behavior. Instead, Congress mounts more raids than ever on the military readiness budget to pay for goodies to impress the voters back home. It's not a pretty sight.

Winslow T. Wheeler was an assistant director for national defense at the General Accounting Office and worked for four senators. His critiques of Congress' handling of Defense spending, published under the pseudonym "Spartacus," landed him in trouble with senior senators. He resigned in June from his job as Sen. Pete Domenici's senior analyst on the Budget Committee.

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