February 7, 2011 — Defense budget experts say the campaign to banish earmarks from Congress is unlikely to succeed because lawmakers will find other ways to direct money to military projects in their districts.
Military projects are too important in too many states and districts for an earmarks ban to halt targeted spending by lawmakers, former Senate congressional defense aides and analysts said. Plus, a ban on earmarks would do little to lower the deficit, leading some to predict lawmakers might even scrap the idea of banning them.
“People think earmarks are bad, but many defense earmarks go toward things Americans strongly support, such as small businesses, medical research and the National Guard and Reserves,” said Travis Sharp of the Center for a New American Security (CNAS). “The defense industry considers earmarks to be a part of the defense budget, where innovation is more welcome.”
Many lawmakers view earmarks as a political necessity. The directed spending brings jobs and an economic boost to their districts and states. For that reason, defense insiders say, there is too much for members to lose by banning them outright.
“Bringing home the bacon is the core function for members of Congress in this political system,” said Loren Thompson, a defense consultant and analyst at the Lexington Institute. “The bottom line is Congress will come up with another way of doing this.”
Past reforms largely have produced little change and many loopholes, said Winslow Wheeler, a 30-year congressional aide now with the Center for Defense Information (CDI). “Expect more of the same,” he added.
President Obama said in his State of the Union Speech on Jan. 25 that he would veto any legislation containing earmarks. House and Senate Republicans have instituted their own voluntary ban, and majority Democrats in the Senate have conceded that they won’t be able to pass spending bills with earmarks in place.
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), the ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, told ABC News the morning after Obama’s speech that he was “so pleased” to hear the veto threat on earmarks. Rep. Buck McKeon (R-Calif.), chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, has said a ban would be “an important step for reining in out-of-control government spending.”
But some congressional aides and analysts question the president’s veto threat. They quickly note that many in Washington consider lawmakers’ yearly move on the F-35 fighter engine to be an earmark. Lawmakers have added language and funds for the F-5’s second engine to defense authorization and appropriations bills.
That move was made in the 2011 defense authorization bill, which Obama signed into law.
The F-35 alternative engine raises a question that experts say will be central to the earmarks ban battle: What is an earmark?
“It is hard to specifically define what is and what is not an earmark, so the working definition they come up with will be important,” Harrison said. While some call lawmakers keeping alive a program the Pentagon does not want earmarking, “others could call it a legitimate policy disagreement with the Pentagon.”
Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii) has said he will soon distribute to senators his definition of what he considers an earmark.
One word came up in most conversations about a congressional ban: loopholes. And former aides and longtime budget analysts expect the earmark bans to have plenty.
“The new pork mechanisms will depend on how Inouye has decided to define pork/earmarks,” Wheeler said. “The loopholes will be there; he and his staff know how to make them. Once the ‘definition’ is set, the workarounds will only be limited by the human imagination.”
Obama and Republican leaders have talked of enforcing bans as part of efforts to cure the nation’s fiscal woes. But budget experts say ridding Pentagon spending bills of lawmakers’ direct appropriations would have little impact on paring the deficit.
“In defense appropriations bills over the last four years, senators have added an average of about $3 billion per year in earmarks,” Sharp said. “That’s about 0.4 percent of the total amount DoD plans to spend this fiscal year. While banning earmarks may suggest fiscal responsibility, serious people know that it will not come close to righting America’s fiscal ship.”
Thompson said a ban “wouldn’t have much impact on the nation’s fiscal problems” — on which Congress is focused — “so I don’t see it happening.”
What’s more, a ban would take power from Congress and give the Pentagon more say over how funds would be spent.
“This is arguably a chief concern of Sen. Inouye and a powerful prerogative he does not want the legislative branch to simply give away,” said Mackenzie Eaglen, a former Senate defense aide who is now at the Heritage Foundation.
“Spending is not reduced at all,” Harrison said. “Eliminating earmarks just gives the executive branch greater discretion in determining how to spend the money —which state, which contractor.
“If they actually want to reduce spending, they have to eliminate the earmark and reduce the appropriation by a corresponding amount,” Harrison added. “It’s not clear to me if that’s what they are actually talking about doing.”
Former congressional aides say the ban would lead to members taking a more active role in trying to convince a Pentagon official to insert their project into the defense budget plan.
“They will be forced to work more closely and organically with the services to convince them a project is worthy of inclusion in the original budget request,” Eaglen said.
Wheeler predicts an outbreak of “phone-marking,” a term used to describe members dialing up service officials to lobby for a hometown program or project.