By Kenric Ward | Watchdog.org Virginia Bureau
FREDERICKSBURG — Members of Congress are circumventing the ban on earmarks by asking agencies to direct money to pet projects, military analysts say.
Critics call it “phone marking” and “letter marking,” and the chairman for the House Armed Services Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee sees potential problems.
“Technically, it’s an earmark,” Rep. Rob Wittman, R-Va., told Watchdog.org Virginia Bureau. “Any request for money is supposed to be part of the committee process.”
Wittman said he was unaware of specific instances in which calls were made or letters sent.
But Winslow Wheeler, a military analyst for the Project for Government Oversight, said his review of the current defense budget turned up several questionable funding requests that occurred after the bill’s passage.
The backdoor maneuvers threaten to balloon the budget or, at a minimum, wreak havoc on previously approved spending priorities.
“This money has the distinct odor of being a slush fund, not for the bureaucrats, but for members of Congress. When the legislation is signed into law, (the Department of Defense) will get some letters and phone calls,” Wheeler said.
Wheeler contends the “operation and maintenance” budget is filled with special requests from members of Congress.
“When the bill is law and the money is available for use, the letters and phone calls will start coming in at the Pentagon’s congressional liaison offices.
“This entire gambit is very reminiscent of a slushy pork fund the House Armed Services Committee set up last year for private enterprise initiatives in R and D spending — except that this new one is buried in the bill’s report,” Wheeler said.
“The dollar amounts are not peanuts.”
“The Army will be getting $193.6 million for unspecified ‘Restoration and Modernization of Facilities.’ The Air Force: $215.5 million; the Army National Guard $49.4 million. In all, I count $594.7 million in the HASC report.”
For taxpayers — or just about anyone else — just reading the defense bill is a mind-numbing experience. Wheeler plowed through all 583 pages, and uncovered several examples in added expenditures.
On page 278, for example, he found a line item appropriating a $500 million equipment fund for the National Guard, in addition to the $3.1 billion already requested by the president.
The net effect of letter and call marking could result in “upfunding” of the defense budget at the same time House Republicans have pledged to cut $487 billion in defense spending over the next 10 years.
Mitt Romney, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, appeared to give budget-busting lawmakers political cover when he called for raising defense spending from 3.8 percent of GDP to 4 percent.
The GOP standard bearer has also committed to expanding the armed forces by 100,000 personnel and boosting annual construction of Navy ships from nine to 15.
Republican senators may be going wobbly on cuts, too.
Last week, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., the ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, and six other GOP senators — including independent Sen. Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut — wrote to 15 large defense contractors inquiring about the effect budget cuts, known as sequestration, would have on their bottom lines, employees and suppliers.
Steven Bucci, senior research fellow for defense and homeland security at the Heritage Foundation, said backdoor requests for pet-project funding have gone on for years, and they’re not limited to Republicans or the HASC.
He recalled one congressman directing the Army in 2006 to buy 1 million old D-cell flashlights of Korean War vintage. Then, another congressman called to request the purchase of an additional 1 million units of the antiquated units. In both cases, the manufacturers were in the members’ districts.
“These kinds of things really screw up the system,” Bucci said. “If (DOD) is forced to purchase something they didn’t ask for, it takes money away from something else. It’s not helpful.
“It’s a waste money at a time when we don’t have any money to waste.”
Scott Cooper, the Fredericksburg, Va.-based state coordinator for Tea Party Patriots, said he was unaware of the letter- and call-marking gambit.
“We need to stop playing games in Washington,” he said. “There is waste in every branch of government, including the Defense Department.”
Since 1998, U.S. military spending has grown to 20 percent of overall federal spending and more than half of discretionary spending — levels not seen since the end of World War II, according to the left-leaning Center for American Progress.
CAP estimates the portion of the budget used to buy equipment from private industry has doubled over the past 14 years to nearly $200 billion.
Wittman says “transparency” is the key. In cases in which calls or letters are transmitted by lawmakers, a “clear record” of such communications is needed, he says.
“I don’t make specific requests within programs. I only go through debate.”
Wheeler, for one, remains suspicious about the House committee’s handling of facilities funding.
“The world wonders exactly where and how does the HASC want that extra facilities modernization money spent? Is the committee handing DOD a military construction slush fund, or does it know specifically where (or) how it wants that money spent. If so, where? How? Who on the committee knows the answers?” Wheeler asked.
Wittman expressed confidence that HSAC members “can work within the system,” but he also acknowledged that “some may feel hamstrung by the rules.” He did not divulge names.
The bottom line for Wheeler was finding “a lot of entries in the tables for O and M spending in the HASC report labeled ‘Restoration & Modernization of Facilities.’”
“There were dollar amounts sprinkled through the O and M table, many of them large, added for each military service and the Reserves and National Guard, but there was no explanation what the money was really for.
“The explanatory material in the text didn’t explain diddley, except for one vague assertion that there was a ‘substantial increase for facility restoration and modernization’ for the Air Force,” Wheeler said.