Last month by overwhelming votes, the House Armed Services Committee and then the full House of Representatives endorsed HR 4435, the National Defense Authorization Act for 2015.
The May 7 vote in the committee was a unanimous, bipartisan 61 to zero. So proud were the panel members of their handiwork that they made the bill a tribute to the retiring chairman, Rep. Buck McKeon, a California Republican.
After debating the bill over three days and adopting various amendments—many of them inconsequential—both Republicans and Democrats in the House overwhelming, though not unanimously, endorsed the bill on May 22. It passed with a vote of 325 to 98.
Don’t take the lopsided support for the bill to mean that it represents truly thoughtful, bipartisan legislating. Instead, it shows that dysfunction in Congress remains as bad as ever … in both parties.
Advertised as “transparent,” the process that produced the bill was opaque and duplicitous. Some observers made much of the fact that the House Armed Services Committee held its subcommittee and full committee mark-ups of the bill in public. Legislators and others touted the willingness to work in the open—in the “sunshine”—as something the Senate Armed Services Committee should emulate.
In truth, the HASC bill is riddled with important but unexplained decisions that representatives made behind closed doors. The only part of the process that occurred in the sunshine, so to speak, was the superficial, cursory debate of various amendments with many members—as usual—reading off their staff-prepared talking points.
The bill calls for hundreds of briefings and reports. But it’s not an example of effective oversight—rather, the pursuit of material agendas. The House Armed Services Committee preoccupies itself with inept posturing and the selfish pursuit of vested interest, all behind a veil of sham transparency.
The bill is stuffed with pork. It vividly demonstrates the abject failure of past “reforms” requiring that legislators report earmarks to the public or simply omit them entirely.
The HASC’s committee report proclaims that the bill “does not contain any congressional earmarks.” That’s baloney. It contains hundreds of them.
The assertion by some lawmakers that the HASC mark-up was transparent addresses the form of the process, not the content. There was indeed public debate, and the committee made available drafts of the bill, amendments and ultimately its report.
But the public debate was highly stylized, frequently consisting of some congressperson reading off a script their staff had prepared for them.
The committee made public drafts of the bill and amendments earlier than has been the case in the past—but obscured the real import of many amendments, numerous provisions in the bill and even the pages and pages of data in the committee report.
For example, it took some extremely astute work by Taxpayers for Common Sense to appreciate that some seemingly innocent language in the committee report directing the secretary of the Army to brief the committee on the potential benefits of lightweight segmented tactical ladders is, in fact, a “precursor earmark” for a manufacturer in the congressional district of the author of the language, Rep. Daniel Maffei, a New York Democrat.
TCS found 14 such requirements for the Pentagon to brief the committee that the organization was able to link to an author with a vested interest in the subject matter of the briefing. The various subjects include modifications of the Stryker combat vehicle, F-35 cannon ammo, tactical generators, civilian transport, “turbulent boundary layer phenomena,” equine encephalitis and more.
The practice is the HASC’s way to circumvent Congress’ moratorium on earmarks. Because the requirement calls for a briefing, not the direct expenditure of money, it does not technically qualify as, and would not be recorded as, an earmark.
However, as congressional insiders have stressed, the briefing is sure to be followed up—if not actually preceded—by phone calls and letters from members and their staffs urging the Defense Department to effect whatever issue the briefing advocates. There’s often an unstated implication that if the Pentagon does not embrace the item under discussion, Congress will be unhappy … if not downright retaliatory.
There’s a long list of other activities that HASC members—and especially their staffs—perform very much in the shadows without even the pretense of transparency. This behavior comprises the very nuts and bolts of how the committee operates, such as how it takes money away from spending accounts it doesn’t like and gives it to programs it does like.
For example, the version of the bill that committee chairman McKeon recommended contains $5.8 billion in various hardware programs that Pres. Barack Obama didn’t request.
They include $796 million to refuel and overhaul the aircraft carrier USS George Washington and another $800 million for an amphibious warfare ship not in the formal budget, $453 million for various vehicles neither the Army nor Marine Corps asked for plus more than $420 million for additional U.S. and Israeli missile defenses.
Many of these add-ons were not in the president’s budget request, but were in various lists of programs that Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel and the individual military services sent to Capitol Hill seeking—quite openly—to circumvent the regular budget process.
Former defense secretary Robert Gates had ended this wish-list practice, but it came back under Hagel.
The Budget Control Act of 2011 and subsequent congressional actions imposed some modest spending constraints on the total amount available to the bill. There was, ostensibly, a $496-billion cap on basic military spending. So the committee had to find offsets for the “extra” $5.8 billion McKeon and others wanted to spend.
While the committee staff was able to find some specific programs to cut as offsets—for example, buying one fewer Littoral Combat Ship, one fewer KC-46A aerial tanker and reducing spending on the Army’s Warfighter Information Network—the staff didn’t find enough to cover the entire $5.8 billion.
To make up the difference, the staff did what it has done many years in the past to thwart budget constraints. The committee report contains pages and pages of tables intended to specify how much the Defense Department is to spend, program by program, in various large accounts, such as the procurement account and operations and maintenance.
Buried in scores of pages are items with titles like “undistributed adjustment” and various other only slightly-less-imprecise terms. At best, the report text only vaguely explains the items. But the amounts total billions of dollars.
For example, the tables for the $165-billion operations-and-maintenance account shows 131 instances calling for what the committee describes as a “reduction in contracts for other services.” They total $403 million. But the report explains none of them—and doesn’t even specify what “other services” means.
These 131 cuts for “contracts for other services” and other items similarly labelled may or may not be referenced in a requirement in the committee report for a GAO report on “contract services,” but none—not one—of the cuts in the tables gets explained. These reductions appear not to be specific, informed actions—rather, reductions that the committee arbitrarily imposed and distributed across-the-board in O&M spending accounts in order to save money … on paper.
As a Senate staffer, I had seen this kind of thing happen when staff directors instructed a general reduction but also instructed that they be distributed—masked—throughout the bill.
If you’re confused, it’s because you’re paying attention.
The same tables announce an additional 63 actions entitled “reduction in service contracts for facilities maintenance,” amounting to $419 million. The report also makes a cut of $266 million that it describes as “undistributed FY 15 reduction.” There are also $69 million in “general reductions” in “unspecified worldwide locations,” $205 million in “prior year savings” and “civilian personnel underexecution” savings of $315 million.
The actual committee report explains none of these cuts.
The report’s tables also extract $2.2 billion in reductions that the law justifies as “undistributed … unobligated balances.” We can assume the “undistributed” cuts come from canceling spending that Congress approved in past fiscal years, but which the Pentagon hasn’t had time to actually disburse—yet. Curtailing these past funds might just force the military to ask for the same money again in the near future.
All told, there are 125 pages in the committee report with tables listing these vague or totally unexplained reductions. All of them amount to a $4.3-billion cut in the bill. That is to say, the vast majority—specifically 74 percent—of the $5.8 billion in programs that McKeon added get paid for with various arbitrary, capricious and poorly-justified cuts.
This is not transparency. It’s opaque legerdemain to facilitate the addition of spending for whatever programs McKeon and other members of the committee favor.
As for the part of the appropriations process that the committee conducted in public—the debate over amendments—the proceedings were unimpressive affairs. In the videos for the full committee and subcommittee mark-ups, members frequently read written statements or speak from prepared talking points.
These sessions are not debates. They are posturing exercises.
Meanwhile, the actual business of deciding what will be in a draft bill continues to occur behind closed doors. It’s no wonder the spending bill itself includes so much vague, confusing language.
On Capitol Hill these days, transparency is a sham—if the HASC report is any indication.
The House Armed Services Committee has plenty of staff to uncover how and why decisions are, and are not, made in the Pentagon—and what is the actual state of our armed forces. Data available from the Sunlight Foundation and LegiStorm show that there are more than 40 individuals with substantive, professional responsibilities on the committee staff of the HASC.
In addition, each of the more than 60 committee members has a staffer in their personal office assigned to do defense work. And—most importantly—the HASC leadership has virtually automatic, high-priority access to the thousands of professionals at the Government Accountability Office, the Congressional Budget Office, the Congressional Research Service and the Defense Department Inspector General who can do audits, evaluations and quick-order research.
There’s also the advice and information that the HASC and its staff frequently seek from Pentagon contractors, think tanks and the military itself—advice and information which frequently, but not always, serves a political, ideological or material agenda.
Based on these considerable resources, one would expect the HASC committee report on the NDAA to be an extremely important and useful font of insight, information and substantive deliberation on defense issues. Indeed, the HASC report requires 89 separate briefings on a variety of subjects. It demands 210 individual reports or studies separate from the 89 briefings.
While the Pentagon and other executive agencies will be responsible for conducting most of these reports and briefings, the GAO and Defense Department IG must do 36 of the individual reports. This amounts to a huge body of investigatory material—or rather, should.
In fact, the majority of the 299 briefing and report requirements in the HASC report have all the characteristics of those “precursor” earmarks that TCS uncovered. For example, in addition to the briefing that the committee demanded on the subject of lightweight composite segmented tactical ladders—which just happens to be produced in the district of the member who asked for the briefing—there’s a requirements for a briefing on the V-22 tiltrotor’s potential to serve as the Navy’s carrier-based delivery plane.
Not coincidentally, V-22-manufacturer Bell-Boeing is lobbying hard for the Navy to buy tiltrotors for this purpose.
Another briefing addresses the High Energy Laser Mobile Demonstrator, a long-time pork item for my previous Senate boss Pete V. Domenici, a New Mexico Republican. There’s a briefing on an obscure program titled “Talon Hate,” something called “High Reynolds Number turbulent boundary layers,” invasive species management for the coconut rhinoceros beetle in Hawaii and Guam and scores of other projects that reek of what we used to euphemistically call “congressional interest items.”
Better known as earmarks. Pork.
In truth, not all of the briefing and report requirements are porky. Some call for information on legitimate issues, such as military suicide, financial management, arms control and wasted spending in Afghanistan. However, these real issue study-requirements are the minority.
By my count, just 11 of the 89 Defense Department briefing demands and 49 of the 174 executive agency report requirements appeared to address legitimate policy issues. I assume the 36 additional requirements for GAO or IG reports are not pork-driven, but I could be wrong.
Despite having huge staff resources available to itself to study and report on an endless variety of important subjects, the HASC instead selects to impose hundreds of studies and briefings on obscure subjects that staff and members can then convert into spending in future budgets.
Perhaps a clear, although unobtrusive, indicator of the HASC’s real intent is an obscure section in the bill. Section 334 requires the Pentagon comptroller to report to Congress on “the readiness and cost impacts of the reductions in operation and maintenance funding required” by the bill.
In other words, having effected its arbitrary, unexplained cuts in the O&M section of the bill, the HASC wants the military to explain to the HASC just what it, the HASC, has done. The HASC staff will be doing more important things—attending to those hundreds of briefings and reports on obscure, but very carefully selected, matters.
On military readiness—a fundamentally important subject—the Pentagon’s word is good enough, according to the House. No need for any independent, objective review. Oversight at the HASC is as much a sham as is transparency.
Scattered through the committee report are hundreds of “items of special interest.” These include many of the briefing and report requirements, discussed above, but they also list other items that look very much like yet more pork.
The HASC added $49 million for modifications to the MQ-1C Gray Eagle drone, $120 million for M-1 tank upgrades the Army did not request and $70.7 million for the M-88A2 recovery vehicle.
The committee also exhorts, but does not specify, more money for the “munitions industrial base.” It promotes an “Arctic center of excellence” and then artfully describes, but carefully doesn’t specify, where it should be located. The spending bill adds $10 million for a “metals affordability initiative.”
The list of special spending items goes on. $50 million for an “industrial base initiative” for medium trucks and $50 million more for heavy trucks, $2.6 million for “feeding technology” and $674,000 more for a “feeding tech demo.” Some university will get $5 million for something dubbed a “DURIP program increase.” Another $80-million “industrial base initiative” is for body armor.
And there are 20 activities that the report lists as “items of special interest” and adds to the Defense Health Program—but for which the committee declines to specify dollar figures. Remember, a request for a specific amount of money could be an “earmark”—and the bill has none of those, lawmakers insist.
The report also details eight conveyances or transfers of government property. Such transfers frequently mean a windfall price for the private sector—but of course none of them are earmarks, either.
The HASC’s NDAA, HR 4435, is full of it. Sham transparency, phony oversight and plenty of pork. However, it’s unfair to pick on just the HASC. Congress’ other defense committees display many of the same bad behaviors.