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U.S. troop funds diverted to pet projects
Senators diverted $2.6 billion in funds in a defense spending bill to pet projects largely at the expense of accounts that pay for fuel, ammunition and training for U.S. troops, including those fighting wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, according to an analysis.
Among the 778 such projects, known as earmarks, packed into the bill: $25 million for a new World War II museum at the University of New Orleans and $20 million to launch an educational institute named after the late Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, Massachusetts Democrat.
While earmarks are hardly new in Washington, “in 30 years on Capitol Hill, I never saw Congress mangle the defense budget as badly as this year,” said Winslow Wheeler, a former Senate staffer who worked on defense funding and oversight for both Republicans and Democrats. He is now a senior fellow at the Center for Defense Information, an independent research organization.
Sen. Tom Coburn, Oklahoma Republican, called the transfer of funds from Pentagon operations and maintenance “a disgrace.”
“The Senate is putting favorable headlines back home above our men and women fighting on the front lines,” he said in a statement.
Mr. Wheeler, who conducted the study, compared the Obama administration’s requests for funds with the $636 billion spending bill that the Senate passed. He discovered that senators added $2.6 billion in pet projects while spending $4 billion less than the administration requested for fiscal 2010, which began Oct. 1.
Mr. Wheeler said that senators took most of the cash for the projects from the “operations and maintenance” or O&M accounts.
“These are the accounts that pay for troop training, repairs, spares and supplies for vehicles, weapons, ships and planes, food and fuel,” Mr. Wheeler said.
Raiding those accounts to fund big-ticket projects the military does not want, but that benefit senators’ home states or campaign contributors, amounts to “rancid gluttony,” he said.
The administration’s budget requested $156 billion for the regular O&M account and $81 billion for O&M for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The bill passed by the Senate cut $2.4 billion from the regular account and $655 million from the war O&M fund.
Senate appropriators insisted that the O&M accounts, despite the cuts, do not shortchange the troops.
“The operation and maintenance title is fully funded,” Appropriations Committee Chairman Daniel K. Inouye, Hawaii Democrat, said during the debate on the bill. “There is no shortage. … The committee is deeply concerned that the critical operational needs of our soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines are met with the finest equipment available.”
Money for the Kennedy Institute was inserted by Mr. Inouye and Sen. John Kerry, Massachusetts Democrat. Sen. Mary L. Landrieu, Louisiana Democrat, and Sen. David Vitter, Louisiana Republican, sought the funding for the World War II museum.
Whitney Smith, a spokesman for Mr. Kerry, said the earmark was “a worthy investment.”
“Sen. Kennedy served on the Armed Services Committee for 27 years, where he fought to deliver top-of-the-line body armor and armored Humvees to protect our troops and save lives. Educating Americans about these battles is a core mission for the Edward M. Kennedy Institute, which showcases one senator’s ability to make a difference,” Mr. Smith wrote in an e-mail. “This funding will help the Edward M. Kennedy Institute become one the nation’s pre-eminent civic educational institutions, and Sen. Kerry is proud to have worked with Chairman Inouye to make it possible.”
Mrs. Landrieu said she was “proud to fight” for money for the World War II museum, which is not just a “monument to the brave men and women who served during World War II,” but also “a constant reminder to future generations about the tremendous sacrifice of millions of Americans.” She added that the earmarked funds “will help to increase tourism to New Orleans.”
Beyond those two earmarks, the largest in the Senate bill are:
- $20 million for Humvee maintenance at an Army National Guard installation in Maine, sponsored by Sens. Susan Collins and Olympia J. Snowe, Maine Republicans. The senators said cuts in the maintenance program proposed by the administration would result in the “layoff of 175 employees in a region already suffering” from the recession.
- $20 million for the Maui Space Surveillance System in Hawaii, requested by Mr. Inouye.
- $25 million inserted by Mr. Inouye for the Hawaii Federal Health Care Network. Mr. Inouye’s Web site says the health care program “supports applied research, development and deployment of technology to improve access and the quality of care to service members, military families and impacted communities.”
Laura Peterson, of Taxpayers for Common Sense, a nonpartisan spending watchdog, told The Washington Times, “Earmarks like these take money away from other defense programs that the Defense Department actually wants. While military health care is certainly a worthwhile venture, it’s hard to see how a program located in Hawaii that openly favors Hawaii-based industries guarantees [the Department of Defense] the best value for such an exorbitant price tag.”
Mr. Inouye had a total of 35 earmarks worth more than $206 million in the final bill, and the ranking Republican on the committee, Sen. Thad Cochran of Mississippi, sponsored 48 worth $216 million.
Mr. Cochran defended earmarking as part of Congress’ responsibility to direct government spending.
“I am not ready to cede the power of the purse to any administration,” he told The Times in an e-mail. “It is vested by the Constitution in the Congress.” He added that appropriators had “reviewed the budget request very carefully, conducted public hearings and reported the appropriation bills that the committee thinks will serve the public interest.”
In addition to the $2.6 billion in earmarks, the bill includes $2.5 billion for 10 Boeing C-17 cargo planes that the military says it does not need, and $1.7 billion for an extra DDG-51 destroyer not requested in the Pentagon’s budget proposal.
Mr. Coburn mounted a rear-guard action on the Senate floor to try to restore some of the money to its original purpose. One proposed amendment restored $100 million to the accounts by correcting the economic projections used in the bill to estimate future costs. That passed, but other amendments to prevent the use of O&M money to fund earmarks were soundly defeated.
Mr. Wheeler said senators had raided O&M accounts to pay for narrowly targeted projects in every budget since 2002, with dire results for troops on the front lines.
“Air Force and Navy combat pilots training to deploy are getting about half of the flying hours they got at the end of the Vietnam War,” he wrote in his analysis. “Army tank crews get less in tank training today than they did during the low-readiness Clinton years.”
Mr. Wheeler told The Times that the figures were drawn from the Pentagon’s budget justification.
Mr. Coburn said in May that the Navy had been forced to curtail at-sea training and flying because of a shortfall in 2009 O&M funds.
The White House Office of Management and Budget has called on lawmakers to reverse the cuts.
“These reductions would hurt force readiness and increase stress on military people and equipment,” the agency said.
The House approved its version of the bill in July. Ms. Peterson said that lawmakers still could restore the funding in the conference that reconciles the two versions of the bill.
The conference “presents a final opportunity for Congress to take their hands out of the cookie jar and put some dough where it’s really needed - protecting our fighting men and women,” she said.
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