Welcome to Byrd country
ROCKET CENTER, W.VA.
It isn't on most maps and has no residents, but Rocket Center has a famous friend on Capitol Hill.Skip to next paragraph
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His identity? Here's a hint: After you clear the guards and the chain-link perimeter that rings the complex, turn right at the Robert C. Byrd Metals Fabrication Center. Continue up the hill – stopping for forklifts carrying explosives – to the gleaming Robert C. Byrd Hilltop Office Complex, including the Robert C. Byrd Institute and the Erma Ora Byrd Conference and Learning Center.
Since 1985, Senator Byrd (D) of West Virginia has directed $250 million in earmarks to upgrade the Allegany Ballistics Laboratory (ABL) here in his state's eastern panhandle – $26 million this year alone.
For the Senate's "king of pork," it's a drop in the bucket. After 47 years on the Senate's powerful Appropriations Committee, Byrd has mastered congressional earmarks – add-ons to spending bills for projects back home. Since 1991, he has steered $3 billion in earmarks to West Virginia, according to Citizens Against Government Waste.
Sums that vast show Byrd's effort to boost the Mountain State's economy. But they also obscure the sometimes tense synergy between Congress and the Pentagon over the merits of military earmarks.
Money for ABL is one of 2,847 congressional earmarks in the FY 2006 Defense Appropriations bill. It includes $1.6 million for Lewis and Clark Bicentennial Activities, $850,000 for a memorial park in Des Moines, Iowa, and $1.7 million to do something about brown snakes in Guam. In all, member projects added up to $9.4 billion in this year's defense spending bill, according to the Congressional Research Service.
Critics, including Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, say that such "member adds" force cuts in more important priorities. They are "simply things that we need to spend on that we don't want," Mr. Rumsfeld told the Senate Armed Services Committee Aug. 3. "The combination of all of that is big dollars, and it hurts."
But not all pork is equal – and not all earmarks are bad, say analysts close to the process. The key questions with any defense earmark are whether the Pentagon really wants it and, if so, why it isn't included in the Pentagon budget. Also: What doesn't get done in order to pay for it?
"What I've learned from doing this for eight years is that every earmark, for good or bad, has a story, and before you comment on it you should know that story," says Keith Ashdown, vice president for policy and communications at Taxpayers for Common Sense in Washington, which has produced the most comprehensive analysis of defense earmarks.
In fact, defense earmarks are among the toughest in any federal spending cycle to track down. It took analysts more than six months to even identify earmarks in this year's defense spending bill, because most are not identified by location or the name of the congressional sponsor.
"It's a very straightforward system, but very few people understand it," says Winslow Wheeler, director of the Straus Military Reform Project of the Center for Defense Information in Washington and a former national security analyst on Capitol Hill. "Most people think earmarks are bad stuff that Congress stuffs in against the will of the Pentagon. In fact, 99.9 percent of the earmarks in the Defense Appropriations bill and Defense Authorization bill are put in with the compliance of the Defense Department – not at the level of Rumsfeld's office but at the project manager level," he adds.
Consider the Allegany Ballistics Laboratory. Twenty years ago, the site had a few Quonset huts, cinder-block buildings banked with earth (in case of explosions), and enough contamination to qualify as a Superfund site. Today, it's a state-of-the-art, diverse industrial complex employing some 1,000 people across 1,628 acres.
About 80 military products are made here, including: 30mm shells for Apache helicopters, composite parts for F-22 jets, training grenades, fuze-proximity sensors, mortars and warheads, tank ammunition, and many other weapons components.
"This plant is the sole producer of more than a dozen critical weapons systems," says Pat Nolan, executive vice president for ATK Tactical Systems, which operates ABL under a contract with the Navy. "There's not one dollar spent on this plant that's not delivering value back to DOD.... We're a very critical part of [its] industrial base."
At the Robert C. Byrd Complex on the hill, other companies have rented space to do secure research. Information Manufacturing Corporation, for example, is digitizing data on hurricane cleanup, avian flu, and weather records.