Gop Deficit Hawks Feast On Pentagon Pork

When John C. Stennis (D-Miss.) was a power on the Senate Armed Services and Appropriations Committees in the 1970s, wags joked that Mississippi might sink under the weight of the Navy ships built there. But that was during the cold war, when spendthrift Democrats ruled Capitol Hill, and deficits were manageable.

Nowadays, the Republicans run Congress, slashing the deficit is an obsession, and the Evil Empire is gone. But some things never change. Senate GOP Whip Trent Lott (Miss.) is carrying on the Stennis tradition by larding up the Pentagon budget with pork for his state. Lott is using his political clout to push for a $1.4 billion amphibious assault ship to be built by Litton Industries Inc. at its Pascagoula shipyard.

As defense-authorization bills wind through Congress, it's clear that the fiscal discipline imposed on some domestic programs hasn't spread to the Pentagon. For the GOP, military pork has particular appeal: Conservatives can camouflage the excess by calling the programs vital proj-ects that bolster the nation's defenses. A Lott aide says there is a "well-documented military requirement" for the ship his boss wants. True, the boat does show up in the Pentagon's long-term plans--but the Defense Dept. doesn't want the assault ship until 2001.

That has led some military-watchers to charge that Republicans are squandering defense dollars just as Stennis et al. did. "They're all guilty," fumes David P. Evans, director of national-defense programs for Business Executives for National Security (BENS), a Pentagon watchdog group that sprang up after the disclosure that the Pentagon paid $600 for a toilet seat.

What's more, some experts worry that lawmakers' treatment of weapons procurement as a series of local jobs programs distracts from basic questions about how to restructure the armed forces to face the challenges of the 21st century. They contend that pork-politics-as-usual has slowed the much-needed shift to a more mobile military. "We have not made the transition from the cold war to the post-cold-war era," says Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.).

Exhibit No.1: the $267 billion defense-authorization bill the House passed on June 15. The measure includes $553 million more for Northrop Grumman Corp.'s B-2 Stealth bomber than the Clinton Administration requested. That could pave the way for spending $15 billion for 20 more planes than the Pentagon thinks it needs. Spending for personnel and training is a "more pressing requirement," says Defense Secretary William J. Perry.

MAKE-WORK? B-2 backers say the House vote was a prudent move to preserve the supplier base until future needs are clear. The B-2 is "the most complex weapon system that has ever been built," and it could take a decade to restart production, says Ralph D. Crosby Jr., head of Northrop's B-2 unit. But with B-2 contractors and subcontractors employing thousands from California to New York, critics think job considerations prompted the vote. The real issue was "where it is built, where it is made," charges Representative Ronald V. Dellums (D-Calif.).

Most of the bacon arrives in more bite-size pieces, however. Consider an $11.2 billion military-construction appropriation the House approved on June 21 to upgrade housing and add family quarters that would encourage long-term service. The Pentagon had proposed a 20% hike, but the House added an additional $500 million--92% of which went to states represented on the House National Security Committee, according to BENS. Among the nonessentials added: $15 million for Marine Corps bachelor quarters in the district of National Security Committee Chairman Floyd D. Spence (R-S.C.) and $10 million for an aerobics and badminton gym at a shipyard in the district of Representative Norman D. Dicks (D-Wash.), a member of the Appropriations Committee's national-security panel.

A House-Senate budget accord reached on June 22 calling for a $264 billion defense budget--$6 billion above the Administration's request--allows lawmakers to postpone some tough spending choices. But not for long, since Pentagon funding will be frozen after that. The budget has started to move slowly from one aimed at fighting a superpower to one that reflects the Administration's assumption that the U.S. must be ready to fight two major regional conflicts simultaneously. But some experts consider even that scenario implausible. A smaller war against a "street-fighter state is the more likely threat," says Carol A. Lessure, a legislative analyst at the Defense Budget Project.

That's why some analysts advocate cutting U.S. military forces and radically shifting spending priorities. Instead of the big-ticket holdover programs from the anti-Soviet era, McCain and others would emphasize smart weapons and increased spending on air- and sealift gear so troops can move quickly to the Middle East or Eastern Europe. The House moved gingerly in that direction but fell far short of a major overhaul. When geopolitics faces off against pork, count on pork to prevail.

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