Pentagon Cries Foul Over 'Pork' in Its Budget

With US military readiness shrinking, top brass are calling for greater scrutiny of lawmakers' pet projects.

It has become almost an annual autumn rite for Congress to pad the military budget with pet projects that lubricate votes and campaign cash back home.

Some of these add-ons, estimated at $5 billion for fiscal 1999, are of no military use, going to popular local projects such as landfill development or hospitals. Those that are defense-related often benefit firms in lawmakers' home districts by forcing the services to buy hardware they don't want.

The Pentagon in the past has tolerated this so-called pork-barrel spending. By keeping relations cordial with the politicians who control their purse strings, the generals seek to safeguard their own pet projects. Nor do they want to see more post-cold-war defense sector closures.

This year, however, has been different.

As evidence grows of an erosion in combat readiness, the services may seek up to $75 billion in additional funds over the next five years to replace worn-out equipment, boost training, and hike pay and benefits. Tolerating budget-stuffing makes the case for raising the $271 billion Pentagon budget harder to justify, especially since the US is forecast to remain without a military peer for years to come.

"The problem has taken on more significance," says Steve Kosiak of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, a Washington think tank. "Add-ons have the potential to do more damage today than they did a year or five years ago."

The reason is the 1997 balanced-budget agreement, which calls for keeping the Pentagon's budget flat through 2002. With inflation, that means military spending will continue its post-cold-war drop.

THE Pentagon's concerns with congressional "pork" became clear last month, when top brass took public aim at pet projects of their congressional counterparts, Senate majority leader Trent Lott and Speaker Newt Gingrich.

The outburst was ironic given that Representative Gingrich and Senator Lott are leading advocates of increasing the Pentagon budget to deal with readiness woes.

Accused by Senate Foreign Relations Committee members of covering up the extent of their readiness problems, the Joint Chiefs of Staff retorted at a Sept. 29 hearing that funds diverted by lawmakers' personal programs are partly responsible.

Without naming Gingrich or Lott, the generals pointed out that over the past three years, Congress has approved add-ons promoted by Gingrich mandating the purchase of 20 C-130 transport planes the Air Force never asked for. The planes, which cost about $50 million each, are made at a plant in the Speaker's home of Marietta, Ga.

"Not only were the planes added, but then we were told where to put them," said Gen. Michael Ryan, the Air Force chief of staff, referring to a requirement that many of them be based with the Air National Guard in Lott's home state of Mississippi.

Furthermore, Congress authorized the purchase of the planes despite lawmakers' stated misgivings about millions of dollars in cost overruns and production delays.

The budget calls, at Lott's behest, for the construction of a $1.5 billion amphibious assault ship the Navy never requested. It is to be built by Ingalls Shipbuilding Inc., in the senator's hometown of Pascagoula, Miss.

Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona, one of the most vocal critics, says the GOP chairmen of defense committees and their Democratic colleagues are among the most profligate practitioners of "earmarking."

"While the amounts associated with each individual earmark may not seem extravagant," he said in a June 25 speech, "taken together, they represent a serious hemorrhage of scarce defense dollars to low priority programs at the expense of vital readiness and modernization programs."

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