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Why are Democrats trying to bring back those porky military earmarks?

After 10 years of winking and nodding, the new Congress is close to lifting the ban on defense carve-outs for members.

Analysis | Washington Politics

It’s the dawn of a new political era in Washington, and amidst important work on COVID relief and staffing the new administration, some prominent lawmakers in Congress are hoping to bring back earmarks. Anyone concerned with the bloated $740-billion defense budget, however, should take serious pause before supporting this misguided proposal.

This practice of earmarking, unofficially halted in both the House and Senate in 2011, directed taxpayer dollars to special projects in lawmakers’ districts. Some of these projects, such as the infamous “Bridge to Nowhere” in Alaska, briefly became household names. When voters put the political heat on Congress — for spending into oblivion on projects that benefitted one Congressional district over 434 others — they stopped the earmarks (or “pork barrel spending,” as some have called it).

This month though, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), the second-ranking House Democrat, reportedly predicted that earmarks would come roaring back with “bipartisan” support. He has good reason to believe so. The most powerful Republican appropriator in Congress, Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.), said last year that he would be open to restoring “directed appropriations, where they’re meritorious.” Shelby’s Democratic counterpart, Senate Appropriations Committee Chair Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), uses a different Orwellian turn of phrase for his part: “congressionally directed spending.” Former President Donald Trump was characteristically more blunt when he told lawmakers, in 2018, that “there was a great friendliness when you had earmarks.”

Meanwhile on Friday, Democratic lawmakers in the House and Senate agreed to a proposal that would cap earmarks at 1 percent of total discretionary spending and places certain “guardrails” around what kind of earmarks are acceptable. For example, member earmarks would not be able to go to for-profit entities. 

Unfortunately earmarks are neither ‘friendly’ nor “great” to the American taxpayer, particularly when it comes to the largest part of the discretionary federal budget: the Department of Defense.

The DoD budget — $696 billion in the current fiscal year, or just under half of the $1.4 trillion Congress appropriated to federal agencies — is consistently the greatest beneficiary of earmark largesse. According to Citizens Against Government Waste, a watchdog group that tracks earmark spending (before and after the 2011 ban, given earmarks have continued in many forms), DoD “has received the most earmarks at the highest cost to taxpayers in each year since FY 1994.”

One may ask: how can DoD keep receiving earmarks under an earmark ban (or moratorium)? It doesn’t take a hard look to find out.

Consider Shelby, a powerful Senator capable of steering significant taxpayer dollars to his home state of Alabama. In November of last year, Shelby “tucked” $500 million for Navy ships built at a shipyard that employs many people in his state “deep inside the draft Senate Pentagon spending bill.” These are ships the Navy did not ask for in its budget, already $207 billion for the current fiscal year.

Speaking of ships, Rep. Joe Courtney (D-Conn.) spoke out forcefully last year when former President Trump proposed funding for only one Virginia-class submarine in the fiscal year FY 2021 defense budget. Courtney is another powerful member of Congress on defense issues, given that he chairs the Subcommittee on Seapower and Projection Forces in the House Armed Services Committee. Likewise, Courtney and his fellow Nutmegger Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) applauded when the House and the Senate agreed to fund a second Virginia-class submarine in their final version of the defense budget last December. Sen. Blumenthal said the quiet part out loud (emphasis mine): “This bill’s critical investment in strategic defense tools — submarines, helicopters, and aircraft built in Connecticut — will keep our country secure, our troops supported, and our state’s economy strong.”

One of the largest boondoggles in DoD history, the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter Program, plagued by delays, deferrals, software malfunctions, and staggering costs, also benefits from official but not-so-official pork-barrel spending. Year after year, Congress decides to pay for more F-35s in the defense budget than the President requests in his budget. This happened in the Trump administration and it happened in the Obama administration. It will probably happen in the Biden administration too, earmark revival or not. Why? One only needs a single hyperlink to find out. As F-35 manufacturer Lockheed Martin itself demonstrates, taxpayer spending on the F-35 directly or indirectly supports thousands of jobs in almost every state of the union.

The intent here is not to pick on individual lawmakers or individual programs — hundreds of lawmakers over the years have directed hundreds of billions of dollars to thousands of projects and programs benefiting their home districts or states. And a skeptic may even argue that the continued practice of earmarking outside the “ban” — let’s call it zombie earmarking as Rep. Jim Cooper (D-Tenn.) does — obviates the opposition to the return of a more “transparent” earmark process. The problem is that for portions of the federal budget that need trimming, like the DoD budget and several of its components, the return of earmarks, even with transparency and reporting requirements, will make it much harder for lawmakers to make the tough but necessary decisions to right-size the defense budget for the future.

To stakeholders who argue that earmarks are needed for Congress to properly do its job — funding the government, scrutinizing federal agencies and federal programs, and building budgets in a fiscally sustainable manner — the counterpoint is somewhat plain: taxpayers don’t fund Congress and do their civic duty on Election Day every two years so that lawmakers can demand special projects in exchange for passing a budget on time. Americans should demand the lawmakers they hire to closely scrutinize how the government spends their money, and this is doubly true of a large and growing defense budget.

The COVID-19 pandemic and the social upheaval of the past year have made many Americans question what makes us safer. Earmarks may satisfy a lot of parochial interests in Congress, but they will not make Americans safer. A larger defense budget — which may be further enabled by lifting the earmark ban — will not make Americans safer. And more Navy ships and F-35s will not,  on their own, make Americans safer. 

Earmarks, a larger defense budget, and more F-35s certainly would not have prevented the COVID-19 pandemic, and none of these things will prevent the next pandemic  — even though about $20 billion to $30 billion per year in global spending will. That’s roughly two to three percent of historical F-35 program costs or, to use a term that may resonate with a few members of Congress, a couple earmarks worth of spending. It’s time to rethink “security,” and taxpayer spending on security, and earmarks will take policymakers further away from having those tough but necessary conversations.

(Shutterstock/Milan Student)
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