Emergency spending gives senators flexibility on Defense

Senate appropriators made sizeable cuts in some of the Pentagon's priciest programs to help generate $7 billion in savings in the fiscal 2006 Defense spending bill, but budget watchers say appropriators freed up large sums of money by transferring programs from the traditional budget to the $50 billion wartime emergency account.

"The budget gimmickry in there has leaped a new boundary," said Winslow Wheeler, a senior fellow at the Center for Defense Information. "Usually, budget gimmicks are a matter of degree. This year, it's a matter of direction."

For instance, the committee slashed $103 million from the Rapid Fielding Initiative, an Army effort that quickly develops new technologies, in the regular budget. However, appropriators funded the initiative at $1.3 billion in the emergency account.

In a similar move, appropriators cut $345 million from Army depot accounts for "peace time workload adjustments" but included $1.5 billion in the emergency account for depot maintenance.

A spokeswoman for Senate Defense Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, said appropriators transferred money between the accounts for urgent needs. "The emergency spending is for things that are high priority and necessary now and the [Defense Department] identified that for us and that's why it's in there," she said.

One budget analyst argued that most programs could fall under the emergency category. "It's sort of a slippery slope," said Keith Ashdown at Taxpayers for Common Sense. "You could define soldiers' boots as an emergency expense. They should have shoes."

Ashdown, who found $12.2 billion in earmarks in the FY05 Defense bill, predicts the funding for pet projects will continue despite the Pentagon's need to pay for troops in Afghanistan and Iraq. "There are as much, or more, add-ons as last year," he said.

The bill includes millions for projects in Stevens' home state of Alaska, as well as several earmarks that would benefit Hawaii, home of Defense Appropriations Subcommittee ranking member Daniel Inouye. Among those are $25 million for the Hawaii Federal Health Care Network, and $2.5 million for an identical program in Alaska. Stevens' spokeswoman said the network connects troops and civilians in remote areas of Alaska to large hospitals.

Another provision mandates that defense contractors working in "non-contiguous" states must hire residents of that state. The local-hire provision helps drive down costs of defense contracting, while benefiting the local community, the spokeswoman said.

But Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., disagreed. "Let's call a spade a spade," he wrote. "This provision directly protects the jobs of only Hawaiians and Alaskans."

In unusually quiet fashion, McCain submitted a five-page "pork statement" to the Congressional Record, blasting appropriators for tacking dozens of additional or unrelated pet projects onto the spending bill. The projects include money for parks and museums, as well as more than $2 million for a bicentennial celebration commemorating the Lewis and Clark expedition.

"The cost of the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq demand a new fiscal sanity in our appropriations bills," McCain wrote. "A half-a-trillion dollar budget deficit means we simply cannot afford business as usual."

The bill also includes money for cancer research -- something McCain has said does not belong in the Defense bill. "Scarce defense dollars should be used for defense purposes, not others," McCain wrote.

Others argue that the money goes to military medical institutions for cutting-edge research. "The targeted funding leads to achievement in the war on cancer," said a spokesman for Appropriations member Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif.

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