Reason: Why no one dares attack the waste in defense spending
In the early months of this year, the Democratic Congress passed an emergency spending bill for Iraq that included $20 billion in pork, including $74 million for peanut storage and $100 million for citrus growers, to bring stragglers on board. President Bush and the GOP denounced these spending items vehemently and repeatedly. But that was just camouflage for their real objection to the bill: that it set a timetable for a troop withdrawal. Bush didn’t have trouble signing a pork-laden defense bill just a year earlier, when the emergency appropriations for Iraq somehow included $700 million to relocate railroad tracks in Mississippi.
In the absence of controversial timetables, neither party will even talk about cutting spending that goes largely to the Defense Department or to fund a war. The Democrats, in particular, have many reasons to shy away from slashing military spending. “The Democrats are out to prove themselves in the area of national security,” says Nick Schwellenbach, a fellow at the Project on Government Oversight, a nonprofit group that monitors federal spending. “They won’t touch the budget for defense because they’re afraid of those negative ads. It’s impossible to kill weapons systems right now.”
Military spending bills, always complicated and always larded up at the last minute, are the stuff of great political ads. One anti–John Kerry commercial from 2004 portrayed weapons and military vehicles literally vanishing from a battle scene, each representing a program the Massachusetts senator had voted against.
That anti-Kerry ad illustrated a larger point: Some of those cuts were supported by Republicans, too. As Kerry haplessly explained on the campaign trail, George H.W. Bush’s Department of Defense, run by Dick Cheney, worked with Congress to reduce defense spending and shrink the Pentagon after the end of the Cold War. That effort continued into the 1990s, as defense spending fell below 4 percent of GDP. The decline was one of those rare points of agreement between President Bill Clinton and Republicans like Newt Gingrich.
“My dad served 27 years in the army,” Gingrich wrote in a 1998 article for Government Technology, arguing for deep defense cuts and a 40 percent decrease in Pentagon staff. “I’m a hawk. But I’m a cheap hawk.” Gingrich could get away with that position for three reasons: The Cold War was over, he was a Republican, and he was not alone.
As the cliché goes, 9/11 changed everything. Winslow Wheeler was working as a Republican staffer on the Senate Budget Committee as $4 billion was added to the first post-9/11 defense appropriations and emergency supplemental spending. “I was horrified that Congress would use that bill, at that time, as an opportunity to increase the pork,” recalls Wheeler, now a scholar at the Center for Defense Information, a Pentagon watchdog group. Since he left his Senate job in 2002, earmarks have ballooned: The 2006 bill contained 2,800 earmarks worth $9.8 billion, more than twice the amount that offended him in 2002. “All the so-called reforms, the ‘sunshine’ on earmarks in defense bills, I regard as pretty much a joke,” he says.