Watching the House of Representatives debate Pentagon policy and budgeting isn't everyone's cup of tea, to put it mildly. But for those who have time and access to C-SPAN or the House's own streaming service, watching these deliberations can be instructive. It's democracy in action, and it's a sight to behold - but not always in a good way.
I was watching the proceedings late Tuesday afternoon and my ears perked up during the discussion of a number of amendments with implications for how the Pentagon spends money on weapons. These debates often have more to do with protecting parochial interests than they do with high-minded discussions of how best to defend the country. Pork barrel politics - the practice of supporting programs that help one's home district or state whether they are needed or not - often rules the day. And so it went yesterday afternoon.
The first amendment to catch my attention was a proposal by Rep. Bruce Westerman (R-AR) to add $82.4 million in spending for the PAC-3 missile defense system at the expense of programs aimed at "minimizing, and, when possible, eliminating weapons-usable nuclear material around the world." This is a terrible tradeoff - more money for an amply funded missile defense program at the expense of an effective program that works to keep bomb-making materials out of the hands of terrorists.
My instincts told me that there must be more to this bad idea than met the eye. And indeed, a little quick googling revealed that the PAC-3 is built in part by Aerojet General in Camden, Arkansas, located in the 4th District of Arkansas, which is represented by - you guessed it! - Rep. Bruce Westerman. Westerman's amendment won the day, in a victory for pork barrel politics over sound policy.
Next up was an amendment brought by Rep. John Garamendi (D-CA) to take $17.9 million from the Ground-Based Strategic Deterrent (GBSD) - a new long range nuclear missile -- to pay for more investment in an Air Force program designed to protect U.S. military transport planes from the threat posed by shoulder-fired missiles. One could argue about how effective these aircraft protection measures might be, or how much to spend for them overall. But taking a tiny fraction of the billions spent on nuclear weapons to look into how to defend U.S. aircraft seems reasonable.
Garamendi's amendment went down to defeat, in part due to the strenuous objections of Rep. Mike Rogers (R-AL). The unofficial world capital of missile defense development - Huntsville, Alabama - is based in Rep. Rogers' home state. And contractors from in and around Huntsville are clamoring for a piece of the new long-range nuclear missile -- a recent meeting there drew 200 companies to meet with Boeing to talk about what it would take for them to become a subcontractor on Boeing's bid for the GBSD. Rep. Rogers may well be a true believer in missile defense and the nuclear weapons buildup, but it's hard to ignore the fact that his state is a huge beneficiary of missile defense and nuclear weapons spending when one hears him debate the issue.
So if we were keeping score at home based on the amendments discussed so far, it would be pork two, policy zero.
The third amendment I heard discussion on was brought by Rep. David McKinley (R-WV) and was described as follows:
"Requires the Secretary of Defense to ensure that every tactical missile program of the Department of Defense that uses solid propellant as the primary propulsion system shall have at least two fully certified rocket motor suppliers in the event that one of the rocket motor suppliers is outside the national technology and industrial base."
You may rightly ask, what the hell does that mean?
Well, to start with motivations, at this point it may not surprise you to know that a company named Orbital ATK, based in Rocket Center, West Virginia, makes motors for tactical missile systems. The second supplier rule would give Orbital ATK a shot at more missile contracts, and could possibly bring more money into Rep. McKinley's home state.
It should be noted that Orbital ATK lost the contract for engines for the AMRAAM in 2010 because it was providing engines that were so unreliable in testing that the entire AMRAAM production process had to be delayed by two years. So a Norwegian company filled in the gap and provided working engines that allowed the AMRAAM program to get moving again. Basically Rep. McKinley was trying to get his home state company an inside track towards getting back business it had lost because of its own past failures.
Unfortunately for Mr. McKinley, his amendment drew a formidable adversary, Rep. Martha McSally (R-AZ). As a former fighter pilot and 26-year Air Force veteran, McSally knows a bit about tactical missiles. And she has her own local interest in the issue. On March 22nd of this year, a Raytheon unit based in Tucson, Arizona - in Rep. McSally's district -- received a $573 million contract for work on the AMRAAM. One of the things Rep. McSally noted in her remarks was that requiring second engine makers to be certified could once again slow production of tactical missiles, including the AMRAAM.
So at first glance the rocket motor fracas appears to be a case of pork-versus-pork. But upon closer inspection, the rocket motor debate is a win for policy. Rep. McKinley's amendment failed (by one vote!), meaning that his parochial attempt to change Pentagon regulations to help a hometown firm was turned back. And Rep. McSally's contention that adding a new requirement in this area was unnecessary and counterproductive makes sense. So perhaps this is a win for policy over pork (with an asterisk). Sometimes a member can argue the right policy even though they have a company in their state with a stake in the outcome. But unfortunately, parochial concerns trump good policy more often than not.
Examples like these are not a reason for us to give up, say the system is rigged, and go home. They are a reason to get more involved. Somebody has to keep tabs on these folks, and then hold them to account. There are good, determined organizations working for more effective, less reckless defense policies, including the Friends Committee on National Legislation, Win Without War, Women's Action for New Directions, Peace Action, and the Council for a Livable World. And there are organizations that look at Pentagon spending from a good government perspective, like Taxpayers for Common Sense and the Project on Government Oversight. These groups can help average citizens wade through the thickets of Washington lawmaking to understand what's right, what's wrong, and how to make their voices heard. For a further roster of relevant organizations see this letter from 17 groups that explains how to cut $38.6 billion from the Pentagon budget.
It's also important to note that the arms lobby - or the military-industrial complex, to borrow Eisenhower's phrase - doesn't always get its way. When Lockheed Martin tried to extend the production run for its immensely expensive F-22 combat aircraft, a coalition of peace and good government groups joined hands with President Obama to stop them. When General Electric tried to get itself a piece of the action on the F-35 program by arguing for the wasteful step of having a second engine supplier, a right-left coalition in the House stopped them. And when the arms lobby poured big money into an effort to lift the caps on Pentagon spending by falsely claiming that keeping the caps would cost the economy a million jobs, they were unsuccessful. And the arms makers also lost credibility for their repeated claim that Pentagon spending is an essential job creator, when research conducted at the University of Massachusetts in fact suggests that almost any other use of the same money creates more jobs than Pentagon spending.
So it's not time to give up, it's time to get active. And when we follow Congressional debates on critical defense issues we should keep an eye out for pork barrel interests that too often distort the development of sound policies.