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Opinion from a Libertarian ViewPoint

Lawmakers’ Military Earmarks Are Exploding Like Fireworks | The American Conservative

Posted by M. C. on July 6, 2020

https://www.theamericanconservative.com/articles/lawmaker-military-earmarks-are-exploding-like-fireworks/

Thought these congressional goodies were banned? Wait until you see the latest National Defense Authorization Act.

It’s that time of year again, when lawmakers, Pentagon officials, and observers on the sidelines quibble over what should—and should not—be in the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA).

Two weeks after the Senate Armed Services Committee advanced their version of the 2021 NDAA, the House Armed Services Committee advanced their own NDAA. Passions have been high and policymakers have tried inserting everything from base naming requirements and stricter “Buy American” provisions to (much-needed) transparency changes.

But regardless of how the House and Senate reconcile their respective NDAA versions, there’s the lingering inevitability of hundreds of earmarks worth billions of dollars being added as the legislation moves from authorization to appropriation. Typically, the earmarks range from $100,000 for research projects to billions of dollars for unrequested weapons systems. If lawmakers are serious about fixing waste, fraud, and abuse at the Department of Defense (DoD), they’ll need to keep earmarks out of the budget. It won’t be easy for Congress, but taxpayers deserve better than pet projects and endless deficits and debt.

When the media reports DoD spending figures, it’s tempting for them to focus on the topline numbers such as the fiscal year (FY) 2020 budget of $738 billion, which amounts to nearly $6,000 for each American household. Annual DoD spending has increased roughly $200 billion over the past five years, and easily matches (or exceeds) what the U.S. was spending on Defense during the Iraq War 10-15 years ago. But in the grand scheme of things, the media often neglects the disturbing trend of Congress lavishing earmarks onto the Pentagon that were never requested by DoD. Last year, for example, the Taxpayers Protection Alliance found the FY 2020 Defense bill contained an astounding 785 earmarks totaling $16.1 billion(click here for the full list).

Unsurprisingly, the top two slots on the list were taken by the F-35 program, which has an estimated lifetime cost of $1.5 trillion. Despite well-documented dysfunctions with the F-35, lawmakers threw an extra $2 billion in taxpayer money toward the ailing program. For example, the fighter jet’s sea search mode is only capable of examining a small sliver of sea surface while pilots have been complaining about barotrauma and sinus pains while onboard.

Even the supply chain for procuring parts is out-of-whack. The Government Accountability Office notes, “to keep aircraft flying despite parts shortages, from May through November 2018 F-35 squadrons cannibalized (that is, took) parts from other aircraft at rates that were more than six times greater than the services’ objective…personnel at F-35 squadrons are pulling parts off of other aircraft that are already unable to fly instead of waiting for new parts to be delivered through the supply chain.”

Despite these well-documented problems, lawmakers are all-but-certain to request more for the program than Pentagon officials say they will need.

And if the past is any guide, the volume of earmarks will continue to increase. FY 2020’s total of 785 earmarks represented a 15.6 increase from FY 2019’s total of 679 earmarks. This doesn’t seem possible, since there’s supposedly been a ban in place on earmarks since 2011. But lawmakers have ignored the ban and just gotten sneakier, cobbling vague language into bills that doesn’t (strictly speaking) benefit their districts.

But when situations arise such as Rep. Betty McCollum (D-Minn.) securing hundreds of millions of dollars for body armor production, taxpayers can’t help but wonder if the funding serves the country, 3M (which is based in Saint Paul, Minnesota), or Rep. McCollum’s reelection bid.  Body armor is undoubtedly important, but a competitive grants process (not earmarks) would be the best way to ensure money is spent wisely.

Clearly, a ban on earmarks hasn’t been enough to deter the self-serving behavior that sows mistrust of Washington, D.C. So, it’s up to lawmakers, taxpayers, and advocacy organizations to call out this behavior and hold members of Congress accountable for wasteful spending. And with the 2020 federal deficit approaching $4 trillion, it’s more important than ever to end these shenanigans. Policymakers shouldn’t let all the intrigue on Capitol Hill get in the way of discipline and accountability.

Ross Marchand is the Vice President of Policy for the Taxpayers Protection Alliance. 

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