Washington ritual follows the passage of almost every appropriations bill. Congressional staffers dismayed by the pork larded through the measure alert journalists. A handful of self-declared "pork buster" legislators give speeches and release lists of objectionable items in the legislation.
Then, newspapers print two types of stories. Most mock the spending, as did The Washington Post, when Congress passed the 2003 omnibus appropriations bill, with a Feb. 17 story, "From Hill with Love, a Platter of Bacon." The article noted the silly stuff: $2 million for honey bee labs, $500,000 for recreational lakes, and $600,000 for boathouses. Other articles express outrage at the waste, the backdoor methods, and brazenness of Congress' senior appropriators, as did The Washington Post on Feb. 12. In "More Pork," a story about the same bill, the newspaper related the appalling list of special interest spending that Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, stuffed into the measure for his home state.
Unfortunately, that's usually about as far as the reporting goes.
These ritual stories only scratch the surface. The pork process on Capitol Hill has far more serious consequences than just wasting a few billion dollars and shameless pandering to special interests. The impact on national defense is truly corrosive.
Over the last 30 years, I worked for four different senators and was engaged, up to my eyeballs, in the pork process in Defense bills. To pay for much of the pork, Congress raids accounts vital for military readiness. Some politicians, such as Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., speak out against these raids. But neither these "pork busters," nor most journalists, have given the public a full description of just how wretched the system is and who really runs it.
From the newspapers, you'd think the pork in Defense bills is something Congress dreams up and adds, against the advice of the Defense Department. Not true. Some of the biggest pushers of Defense pork work in the Pentagon.
A vivid example is the acquisition of VIP transport aircraft for the use of senior military officers and bureaucrats and, of course, members of Congress and their staffs. There is a legitimate need for a very few senior military officers and top Defense civilians to travel in these specialized aircraft, which offer military communications equipment to keep in touch with headquarters. But if you've ever been inside a military VIP transport, you know they contain a few other items as well. Often, the planes include a galley and cook who can make you recant everything you ever said about airline food. Also often included: plated silverware, embossed glasses, plush seats, and male and female stewards-in military uniform, of course.
The aircraft in question range widely in size and amenities. The bottom of the line is a military variant of the Cessna Citation business jet, the UC-35. The cost varies, depending on model, from $4.1 million to $7.6 million. It lacks a full galley and leader-of-the-free-world cachet. Next up the scale is a Gulfstream V executive jet (a C-37) for up to $45 million. The top of the line is a Boeing 737 (C-40B) at $52 million.
Congress has been packing these aircraft into Defense's budget for years. Since fiscal 1999, Congress has added to Defense appropriations 13 Citations, two Gulfstreams, and two 737s, not one of them included in a Defense budget request. The total cost was $272 million, not counting operating costs. These planes were added to a fleet of hundreds of government VIP transports.
The new aircraft were not added because Cessna, Boeing or the Gulfstream Aerospace Corp. talked a member of Congress into buying them. They were added because military officers personally lobbied for them, especially the pricier models.
In 1999, for example, Marine Gen. Anthony Zinni, the chief of Central Command, asked Defense for a Boeing-757 costing more than $90 million. The Defense comptroller told him his old but serviceable Boeing-707 had plenty of life left. Zinni ignored him and went through the back door to the appropriations committees.
An appropriations staffer called me to alert the Senate Budget Committee, where I then worked, that Zinni was going to get his airplane. What's more, the staffer said, the plane would not only cost far more than other aircraft in the fleet, but be bought through a lease-purchase agreement, which hides total costs by spreading them over multiple years, violating both Office of Management and Budget buying rules and the 1974 Budget Act. Zinni had found a friend in Rep. John Murtha, D-Pa., the top-ranking Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee's Defense Subcommittee. When made aware of the extraordinary cost of a 757 and of the parliamentary difficulty in violating the Budget Act, Zinni and Murtha reached a compromise. The general would get a cheaper 737/C-40B, and the acquisition would conform to budget rules. The $52 million aircraft was added to the fiscal 1999 Defense appropriation.
A year later, Coast Guard Commandant James Loy let it be known to Sen. Stevens that he wanted a new Gulfstream VIP transport. Along with six unrequested C-130J aircraft headed for the Coast Guard base in Kodiak, Alaska, Stevens added the Gulfstream to an emergency supplemental appropriations measure.
Very shortly thereafter, a fancy invitation arrived in my in box. It was for a Coast Guard ceremony to award the first annual Commodore Ellsworth P. Bertholf Award to, surprise of surprises, Sen. Stevens for his "long-term vision and leadership while making substantial contributions to . . . the Coast Guard." The gold embossed invitation and its timing were too exquisite to ignore. I gave it to a journalist. I thought the exposure would slow down the next general or admiral with visions of a shiny new personal transport dancing in his head.
But the very next year, Adm. Dennis Blair, the commander of the Navy's Pacific Command, sought a new 737/C-40B that Defense hadn't requested. The admiral knew just where to go. Blair, whose headquarters was in Honolulu, won over the top Democrat on the Senate Appropriations Committee's Defense Subcommittee, Sen. Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii. Blair also won Sen. Stevens' support. The $52 million aircraft was added to the fiscal 2001 Defense appropriation.
There is little difference between these aircraft and the thousands of more obscure projects that members of Congress add to Defense bills. But nothing in VIP transport pork benefits a legislator's home state. Nothing, that is, beyond what many on Capitol Hill esteem most: the ability to dispense large favors, knowing they can redeem them in the future. Might Inouye some day want Blair to support a bit of unbudgeted Navy spending in Honolulu? Why sure.
While the military officers were logrolling for personal transport aircraft, I was working on more mundane pork for the state of New Mexico on behalf of my boss, Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M. Each project followed the same methodology. A Defense bureaucrat (uniformed or civilian) made it known that he or she wanted spending the department hadn't formally requested. Examples include an upgrade to the high-speed test track at Holloman Air Force Base in Alamogordo, additional spending for mine detection research in Albuquerque, and micro-electronics testing at the New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology in Socorro.
Before I resigned from the Senate Budget Committee in June 2002, my fiscal 2003 list of member requests for New Mexico in the Defense appropriations bill consisted of 88 separate items costing $719 million. We knew that before any of these were added to the bill, the Senate Appropriations Committee staff would check with military base commanders, program managers, and research directors to make sure they really did want the extra spending. If they didn't, the "member request" was pretty much toast. If they did, it was only a question of money and how many projects senators wanted to stuff into the bill at the expense of things like military readiness. Such add-ons add up to real money-in the tens of billions of dollars. According to McCain's modest, conservative definition of pork, the 2003 Defense appropriations bill contained $8.3 billion of it.
This process bypasses the Defense secretary and his senior staff. They're the ones who put together the official budget request that the Defense bureaucracy spends the rest of the year adorning with baubles. The process makes many people happy: the Defense bureaucrats and senior officers get the spending they want, the "old bull" appropriator gets to dispense goodies, and the member of Congress broadcasts how effective he's been at bringing home the bacon.
But the Defense secretary is routed by his own bureaucracy, and his budget is converted into an ever-expanding spending machine. Thousands of men and women in the armed forces, some of them flying over Afghanistan (and soon Iraq) in combat aircraft made in the 1960s and 1970s, get diminished stocks of spare parts to keep their aging aircraft flying. But at least they get the pleasure of knowing that their top commanders are flying in style.
Winslow T. Wheeler is a visiting senior fellow at the Center for Defense Information. He spent 31 years working for four senators, from both political parties, and the General Accounting Office.