House Republicans have added more than a half-billion dollars to the defense budget, even as Pentagon officials are struggling to meet their target of cutting spending by $487 billion over the next decade.
Lawmakers who added the money say it is needed to restore what one Republican staffer called "phoney" savings the Obama administration claims in its budget for modernizing and maintaining military facilities.
Critics claim the extra cash is a "slush fund" for potential pork-barrel projects in lawmakers' districts.
Both the defense authorization bill recently passed by the House and the defense appropriations bill currently awaiting its turn on the floor contain the additional funding, described as being for "restoration and modernization of facilities."
The total across all three armed services is nearly $600 million in the House authorization bill and more than $770 million in the appropriations bill, according to an analysis by defense budget veteran Winslow T. Wheeler, of the Project on Government Oversight, a government spending watchdog.
The annual defense authorization bill primarily deals with policy issues, but contains spending guidelines. The appropriations bill actually allocates the money every year.
Showdown with Senate
The extra half-billion in facilities funding is part of the reason why the House bills would add about $3.7 billion to President Obama defense budget request for fiscal 2013.
The additional funding has set the stage for a battle between the GOP-controlled House and the Democratic-controlled Senate, which is expected to pass bills that reflect the administration's efforts to reduce the deficit by trimming projected Pentagon spending.
The two chambers' bills have to be combined before they can proceed to final passage and presidential signature.
The extra half-billion dollars in the House billls "is money without stated purpose or direction," said Mr. Wheeler, who spent three decades as a Capitol Hill staffer overseeing Pentagon budgets for both Republican and Democratic members of Congress.
"That has slush fund written all over it," he told The Times.
Congressional staffers insist the money is needed to maintain and repair military buildings.
"The funding provided will support Department of Defense identified requirements for facility upgrades, renovation, and needed improvements," said Jennifer Hing, communications director for the House Appropriations Committee.
But Mr. Wheeler said that, once the bills are passed by both chambers and the money is appropriated, members of the Appropriations and Armed Services committees will start phoning or writing Pentagon officials with "suggestions" about how the money would be spent on pork-barrel projects at military bases in their home districts.
This process, known as phone- or letter-marking, has largely replaced the now-banned practice of earmarking — where lawmakers would fund pet projects by inserting the money directly into the funding or policy bills.
"Lawmakers can create these large pots of money, then go back and write or call the agency heads to ask them to direct the money to their pet projects," said Stephen Ellis, vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense, another non-profit budget watchdog.
"If the lawmaker is a senior member of the appropriations or oversight committee for that agency, you can bet [agency heads] will pay close attention," he said.
Republican staff aides from both committees said the money is needed to restore what one aid called "phoney" efficiency savings the administration is claiming in its budget.
"They just doubled the amount of time [they estimate for budgetary purposes] their buildings will last, cut the maintenance budget and called it efficiency savings," said one Armed Services Committee staffer.
"These aren't efficiency savings, they're phoney savings."
"In the end it's going to cost more to do it that way" because buildings will need to be replaced sooner without the necessary maintenance, the staffer added.
Independent budget watchdogs, however, say lawmakers should provide more detailed guidance to the Pentagon about how they expect the money to be spent.
"In the current budgetary environment, the committees need to be more transparent about why and exactly how they disagree with [Pentagon] budget priorities," said Laura Petersen, a senior analyst at Taxpayers for Common Sense.
Observers say that phone- and letter-marking are bipartisan practices. Although many Democrats voted against the House defense authorization bill, the senior Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee, Rep. Adam Smith of Washington, supported it.
He said the bill "provides our military with the resources and equipment necessary to accomplish their missions and safeguard national security."
Officials have long complained about such additional spending, noting that budgeting is a zero sum game.
"When something is added to our budget that is not needed, we are forced to take out something that matters," Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton Carter said this week.
"Deferring maintenance is a fact of life for businesses" in the current economic downtown, said Mr. Ellis.
"It ought to be for government as well," he added.
In addition to the extra facilities funding, the House bills would also keep billions of dollars worth of National Guard aircraft the administration wants to scrap.
They would also fund the continued production of Global Hawk surveillance drones and restore cuts to purchases of Abrams battle tanks and Virginia-class submarines.
The House budget plan, authored by Rep. Paul Ryan, Wisconsin Republican, pays for the additional defense spending with cuts to social welfare programs.
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