The House last week more than tripled funding for an updated version of a Cold War-era tank the U.S. Army says it doesn’t need. If the vote made questionable sense to some watchdogs in an era of tightening military spending, it made a lot of political sense to lawmakers seeking to preserve jobs in their districts.
Even with a two-year ban on earmarks, or pet projects that often can’t be justified as national priorities, the action was the latest evidence that members of the U.S. Congress are still finding ways to deliver the goods for their constituents.
In addition to approving $255 million for the Abrams battle tank, the House added hundreds of millions of dollars to the Pentagon’s $606 billion annual spending bill for items the military didn’t request, including health programs with little connection to national defense and a National Guard anti-drug program that the Drug Enforcement Administration also performs.
More than 100 lawmakers, including House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio, support continued production in Lima, Ohio, of the most advanced version of the Abrams tanks built by Falls Church, Virginia-based General Dynamics Corp. The facility is in the district of Representative Jim Jordan, leader of the Republican Study Committee composed of fiscal conservatives, and is in a neighboring district to Boehner’s.
“Modest and continued Abrams production for the Army is necessary to preserve the industrial base,” Jordan, among more than 100 lawmakers, wrote in an April 20 letter to Defense Secretary Leon Panetta.
Watchdog groups are critical of the process of loading up the Pentagon’s spending bills with lawmakers’ special requests, along with unrelated items such as the health funding.
“Under the guise of national security a lot of lawmakers stuff funding into defense bills that could benefit their district,” said Steve Ellis, vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense, a Washington-based group that tracks federal spending. “The defense bills are the biggest honey pots for these type of shenanigans because there is so much more money to play with.”
The Abrams tank program also would preserve jobs in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Florida.
The Army wants to cut spending on upgrading tanks to $74.4 million in fiscal 2013, a decrease of $362 million, or 83 percent, from this year, and to suspend work for several years after that to save money as it resizes its fleet of combat vehicles after the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The Abrams is the Army’s main battle tank. Designed more than 30 years ago to defeat Soviet forces in a land war, the tank weighs almost 70 tons in the most advanced M1A2 version, and advances half a mile per gallon of fuel. The Army has about 6,000 Abrams tanks.
“This is all about the jobs,” said Gordon Adams, a professor at American University in Washington and a former Office of Management and Budget official in President Bill Clinton’s administration. “It is unnecessary spending and in that sense wasteful. We are in an era of declining resources.”
As part of a shift in strategy, the U.S. is realigning forces in the Asia Pacific region with less reliance on heavily mechanized armored divisions. That change should be reflected in the Pentagon’s budget priorities, according to Todd Harrison, a senior fellow with the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments in Washington. The Abrams tank “is not a priority,” he said in an interview.
Army Secretary John McHugh said it would cost $600 million to $800 million to close and later reopen the production line, compared with more than $3 billion to keep it running until 2017.
Jordan has maintained that more money would be saved by continuing production of the tank instead of suspending production for several years.
General Dynamics has about 450 employees in Lima; 150 in Scranton, Pennsylvania; 125 in Tallahassee, Florida; and about 700 in Sterling and Shelby, Michigan. Lawmakers from those states, including Representative Sander Levin, a Michigan Democrat, and Mike Rogers, a Michigan Republican, have pushed for funding for the tank.
Suspending tank production as the Army proposed “isn’t good military policy,” Levin said in an interview. “If it’s a bad idea and it hurts jobs, then it’s a doubly bad idea.”
In the Senate, those backing continued production of the Abrams tank include Rob Portman, an Ohio Republican and a potential running mate to Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, and Ohio Democrat Sherrod Brown, who is running for re-election this year.
“It is an industrial base issue, a national security issue, of course it’s jobs too,” Brown said in an interview. “I think it’s about our national defense, I don’t see it as an earmark, but I do not outright oppose earmarks,” as other lawmakers do, he said.
Senator Carl Levin, a Michigan Democrat and chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said he supported increased funding for the tank earlier this year because “it is a congressional effort to be smart with the taxpayers’ money.”
“I consider it the smart thing to do,” Levin said.
The House and Senate enacted the earmarks moratorium in 2011, responding to criticism of wasteful spending illustrated by the “bridge to nowhere” in Alaska. Before the ban, lawmakers were required to publicly disclose each project request in a spending bill. Now, the requests for extra funding have no names attached.
Citizens Against Government Waste, a Washington group that seeks to eliminate waste in government spending, said the ban is showing results. It said the number of earmarks dropped by 98.3 percent, from 9,129 in fiscal 2010 to 152 in fiscal 2012, and the cost of such projects fell by 80 percent, from $16.5 billion to $3.3 billion, the lowest amount since 1992.
A clear line can’t be drawn between what’s considered a special member project or spending that has a legitimate public purpose, said Representative Peter Welch, a Vermont Democrat.
“For many members they might support a weapons system because they think it is in the national security interest; others may have as a primary goal all the jobs in that district,” Welch said in an interview.
Appropriators can add extra money for weapons programs as part of the congressional authority to write spending bills and decide funding levels.
“Members on some bills will submit programmatic requests that some will say are just earmarks by another name,” said Representative Jeff Flake, an Arizona Republican who has waged a war on earmarks.
This year, the Democratic-led Senate and Republican-led House face the prospect of extending government funding with a stopgap measure, known as a continuing resolution, because Congress hasn’t agreed on any spending bills for the 2013 fiscal year starting Oct. 1.
Lawmakers turn to the Pentagon spending bill to seek hundreds of millions of dollars for non-military projects, including drug enforcement and research into bone marrow disease, autism and breast cancer.
Funding for an anti-drug program that had been apportioned to states through the National Guard is now bundled with no names attached. An additional $130 million would be spent on that project in 2013 to use military personnel in drug enforcement operations in the states.
The Drug Enforcement Administration already handles that work, according to Citizens Against Government Waste. The group highlighted the National Guard funding in the 2012 defense bill and hasn’t yet tallied projects for 2013.
Among lawmakers who requested money for this program are Representative Harold Rogers, a Kentucky Republican who leads the House Appropriations Committee; Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat; Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Daniel Inouye, a Hawaii Democrat; and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, according to Citizens Against Government Waste.
In a report accompanying the House defense appropriations bill for the next fiscal year, lawmakers criticized the Defense Department for a “misguided effort to produce savings” by reducing the budget for the program by 50 percent. The Pentagon requested almost $1 billion for the National Guard effort.
Funding allocated for medical research with little connection to defense receives the same treatment: no disclosure of states, recipients or requesters.
Almost all of the $550 million added by the House as part of the defense health program goes toward research into breast, prostate, ovarian and lung cancer, as well as for muscular dystrophy and bone marrow failure. Though few lawmakers question the need for such funding, some say it shouldn’t be included in the defense spending bill.
The National Institutes of Health “doesn’t have funding for breast cancer research but defense does,” Flake said in an interview. “Nobody wants to vote against the defense bill. If we just keep loading up the defense bill with certainly worthy items that should be done elsewhere, then we just have bills with spending that you can never cut.”
Citizens Against Government Waste maintains that health research projects in the defense bill are redundant. A separate measure in 2012 provided $5.1 billion for the National Cancer Institute, according to the watchdog organization’s website.
Only a few projects in spending bills being considered this year have a request tied to a lawmaker who can be identified. Representative Bill Young, a Florida Republican and longtime appropriator, would continue funding his namesake bone-marrow donor program through $31.5 million he secured in the House-passed defense spending bill. The initiative began about 25 years ago at the behest of a St. Petersburg doctor in his district.
The bone marrow registry is now a national program and includes more than 10 million potential volunteer donors for civilian and military patients, according to the report accompanying the House defense bill.
While it doesn’t carry a lawmaker’s name, the Defense Rapid Innovation Program is the brainchild of Representative Norm Dicks, the top Democrat on the appropriations panel. It received $250 million in the defense bill to help encourage small business innovation through a competitive process.
Senator John McCain, an Arizona Republican, criticized it as a “special interest” effort that the Pentagon doesn’t include in its yearly budget requests.
Flake said while the earmark ban has been beneficial, it has driven waste “more towards the margins.”
Several lawmakers said the earmark ban leads to poor decision making on spending projects.
“It’s a bad idea,” Senator Mark Begich, an Alaska Democrat, said in an interview. “It’s taking away the legislative prerogatives on what we think is important to our communities based on community input.”
Scott Lilly, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and a former Democratic staff director of the House Appropriations Committee, said lawmakers’ influence on special projects is often hard to detect and prove.
He said a Republican on the House Appropriations Committee once explained how he dealt with an agency he oversaw. The lawmaker never told the agency what he wanted, Lilly said -- he “just gave them hell until they figured it out on their own.”