ROCKET CENTER, W.VA. — It isn't on most maps and has no residents, but Rocket Center has a famous friend on Capitol Hill.
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.
From the hilltop complex, surrounded by mountains and flanked by the North Branch of the Potomac River, you can still see some of the World War II-era buildings on the flood plain. The ABL was established in 1944 on the site of a former ammunitions plant on land owned by the Army. After the war, the plant was transferred to the Office of Scientific Research and Development, where it helped build propulsion devices and engines for the solid-rocket industry. Then, it was transferred to the Navy. The Navy expanded the ABL in 1962 to help develop the Fleet Ballistic Missile, but further investment dried up. By the 1980s, industry in the region was in trouble. Coal and steel, paper, tires, and textiles were going or gone. No new sector appeared to take their place.
Then came Byrd. He saw an opportunity for growth at the ABL and secured a $2.3 million earmark to "jumpstart the restoration and modernization of the complex," he wrote in his recent autobiography, "Robert C. Byrd: Child of the Appalachian Coalfields."
"As the Cold War began its final phase, I saw that the continuing evolution of our nation's armed forces into highly technical units presented opportunities to serve the national defense, as well as to expand West Virginia's economic base at ABL," he added.
Drawing on his clout as the top Democrat on the Senate Appropriations Committee, Byrd requested and won earmarks for the lab from 1985 to 1997, when he prevailed on the Navy to pick up funding for ongoing improvements. During the next seven years, the Navy poured $111.9 million into the site. And when the Navy opted to end that line of funding, Byrd picked it up again as an earmark.
ABL is still owned by the Navy, but ATK (Alliant Techsystems), a $3.4 billion corporation based in Edina, Minn., has operated the facility since the 1940s. The ABL site now accounts for about 10 percent of those annual sales.
"Senator Byrd saw this potential years ago," says Stephen Hoffman, head of Naval Industrial Reserve Ordnance Plant and Equipment. "Every project has a business model and a return on investment or we don't do it."
ATK has continued to invest in ABL because of the "strong partnership that has been formed between the Navy and ATK, supported by Senator Byrd," says ATK's Nolan.
It's misleading to describe that support as "pork," says Byrd spokesman Tom Gavin. "ABL is doing work that the Defense Department has bought into both from a budgetary standpoint, a contractual standpoint, and a use standpoint."
But critics say that defense earmarks come at the expense of maintenance, training, and other Pentagon priorities. Earmarks overall, they charge, are out of control – especially ones for defense. While it's difficult to ferret them out of defense spending, it's even harder to figure out their opportunity cost.
"Earmarks are a drain on the military because of the way they pay for it," says Mr. Wheeler, author of the 2004 book, "The Wastrels of Defense: How Congress Sabotages U.S. Security."
Before breaking for August recess, the Senate added $10 billion to the FY 2007 Defense Appropriations bill to cover the shortfall in maintenance and equipment. "Congress needs to compare this facility to other like facilities" to see if it's performing a useful mission, he adds.
Defense earmarks are also at the heart of corruption scandals threatening to sink Congress to new lows in public esteem. In November 2005, Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham (R) of California resigned from Congress and was later convicted of conspiring to take $2.4 million in bribes from two defense contractors for whom he sponsored earmarks. Reps. Alan Mollohan (D) of West Virginia, Rep. Katherine Harris (R) of Florida, and Rep. Virgil Goode (R) of Virginia are also fielding questions over their acceptance of campaign contributions related to defense earmarks.
But locals glad to see an economic rebound aren't concerned about the controversy over earmarks. "ABL is a tremendous asset to this region," says local historian Albert Feldstein.
Children no longer have to leave the region to find a job, says ABL program manager Paul Corwell, who says he has two brothers, a brother-in-law, two first cousins, and the wife of a cousin all working on site. "This plant really is a national asset and the reason people don't appreciate that is because they don't know about it," he adds.
• Previous articles in this series ran July 25 (Alaska's "bridges to nowhere"), Aug. 1 (Mississippi State University's earmarks) and Aug. 8 (Franco-American Heritage Center in Lewiston, Maine).