PRESIDENT Clinton has been accused by Republicans of endangering US military readiness by short-changing the defense budget. Senate Republicans are countering with a fiscal 1996 Pentagon spending plan that is $7.1 billion higher than the president requested. Ironically, however, very little of the extra money would go to readiness.
Instead, GOP lawmakers on the Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) joined Democrats in earmarking the bulk of unsolicited funds for weaponsmakers and military-construction projects in their states.
Stuffing ''pork'' into the Pentagon budget to secure jobs and votes back home was long an annual rite in Democratic-controlled Congresses. The Republicans, too, are apparently adopting this rite.
''The tradition of pork is bipartisan - liberals and conservatives, House and Senate,'' laments John Isaacs of the Council for a Livable World, an arms-control advocacy group: ''Members talk about the Pentagon being underfunded. Yet when they spend money, they spend it on pet projects for their states,'' he says.
Republicans, however, reject those charges. They say the Clinton administration has dangerously underfunded modernization, weapons-acquisitions, and projects to improve the quality of life of service personnel. ''This is not, in my view, pork-barrel spending,'' says Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona, a SASC member.
The Senate on Wednesday began debating the SASC's proposed $264.7 billion Defense Authorization Bill. The House has already approved its version, which is $9.7 billion higher than Clinton's original $257.6 billion blueprint. The Senate and House versions will have to be reconciled in a conference committee after the August recess.
According to studies by Mr. Isaacs, both the Senate and House plans are loaded with ''pork,'' but senators seemed more self-indulgent than their House counterparts.
The SASC added to its legislation more than $5 billion for weapons the Pentagon did not ask for. Of the total, 81 percent - more than $4.1 billion - would go to arms contractors in states represented by 21 committee members and five lawmakers on the Senate Defense Appropriations Subcommittee.
The biggest gainer was Trent Lott of Mississippi, who as majority whip is the second-highest ranking GOP senator. According to Isaacs, $1.4 billion would go to Ingalls Shipbuilding, a major Mississippi employer, for an amphibious assault ship the Navy did not plan to begin funding until 2001. Ingalls would also share in $650 million in start-up costs for two unsolicited Aegis-class destroyers. Some funds would also go to the Bath Iron Works in GOP Sen. William Cohen's state of Maine. Senator Cohen chairs the SASC's sea power subcommittee, on which Senator Lott also sits.
SASC Democrats whose states would benefit from unrequested weapons funds include Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts and Christopher Bond of Missouri. Some $564 million was earmarked for 12 F-18 Hornets built by contractors in their states.
TO the administration's proposed $10.6 billion military construction budget, the SASC added $346 million for 44 unsolicited projects. The Council for a Livable World study found that 78 percent of the funds would go to military facilities in states represented by members of the SASC or the defense appropriations subcommittee.
House National Security Committee members were also generous in earmarking unsolicited funds for defense contractors and construction projects in their districts. The Council for a Livable World determined that they added $4.5 billion for weapons and more than $500 million for construction projects the administration did not seek.
Many lawmakers resent their colleagues' conduct, especially as huge cuts are being proposed in federal programs for the elderly, poor, and disabled, in efforts to erase the deficit.
''I think this is tragic. It is fundamentally unfair to the rest of the budget, where we are being quite harsh,'' says Rep. David Minge (D) of Minnesota, a co-chairman of a bipartisan group called ''the Pork Busters.''