Defense Budget Tutorial #3B: Pork: What is it?

 By Winslow Wheeler

January 31, 2006


It’s not what you think

Going through the lists of pork in defense appropriations bills, it is quite easy to pick examples that appear foolish on their own face or that obviously have no proper place in the defense budget: museums, bicentennial Lewis and Clark celebrations, and breast and prostate cancer research are typical examples. However, such items that appear to be both defense-related and even useful also occur. Surely, soldiers in the mountains of Afghanistan have a need for the “fleece insulated liners” identified in an earlier tutorial (#3A: “Pork: Where is it?”). Just as clearly, the $1.7 million addition for a “Program Increase” for the “Joint Stand-Off Weapon” (page 282) may be justifiable, as perhaps is an additional $5.5 million for the “Walter Reed Amputee Center.”

Is the latter pork?

Of course, it is. The real problem is that nobody knows the real merit of these and other earmarks, even when they have relevant and useful sounding names. For example, could the $5.5 million for the Walter Reed Amputee Center actually be for a new cafeteria there, or is it for proven-quality wounded veterans’ care? You are not likely to find a meaningful answer by reading the “Joint Explanatory Statement” for the 2006 DOD Appropriations Act or, for that matter, any other report from the House or Senate Appropriations Committee.

The real problem with “pork” is that no one knows whether it is good or bad. Virtually none of these congressional add-ons are put through a rigorous, even competent, review process by any objective entity. For example:

  • The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) is not asked to review the most likely annual cost of these items, let alone multi-year costs, if any.

  • The Government Accountability Office (GAO), or any other objective party, is almost never asked to review the need for the item or whether it would adequately meet an existing need.

  • If the item is the subject of any questions in the Defense Appropriations subcommittees or the Armed Services committees of the House and Senate, the inquiry is usually perfunctory, if not a set-up worked out by the inquiring member’s staff and a cooperative witness - with the questions and answers all predetermined before the hearing.

  • In those rare cases where the item might actually pass muster on the above criteria, no one in Congress is interested in pitting their home-district contractor (and potential campaign contributor) against manufacturers in other states or districts in a free market competition for the contract. After all, it is hardly the point of the exercise to get the business for someone else’s political district.

In short, pork is not necessarily “bad stuff” crammed into the defense budget by Congress; it is unknown stuff. Its cost and need are only dimly known, if at all, and effectiveness compared to competitors is completely unexplored. The worst part of the pork process is that no one has established whether any specific earmark is junk or very much needed in even larger amounts.

Congressional add-ons are included in the defense budget, not because a case for them has been made, but because someone wants them.

The vetting process

Each year, members of Congress send the appropriations and Armed Services Committees several thousands of requests for earmarks. Only a fraction is approved. So what, then, is the vetting process? Who decides and what is the criteria?

There are two major filters and they’re both quite simple.

First, in the Senate, for example, if a member votes against a defense appropriations bill, he or she can expect little help on pork requests from the top Republican and Democrat on the Defense Appropriations Subcommittee (Sens. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska., and Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii). Without their joint (“bipartisan”) approval, you can absolutely-positively forget about your “pork item,” whether it is a useless memorial park upgrade or an effective new bandage for wounded soldiers and Marines. When the author worked as a Senate staffer, the top “clerk” on the Defense Appropriations Subcommittee for Stevens repeatedly made it quite clear with statements like: “If you helped us, we did our best to help you. If you didn’t vote for our bill last year, you shouldn’t expect much help from us this year.”

However, even Stevens, who possesses a temper that is infamous on Capitol Hill, does not want to irritate most other senators by saying no too often to their requests. And yet, if he said OK most of the time, the pork bill in DOD appropriations bills would be much, much larger. How can he and Inouye cut down the requests and still stay on the right side of their colleagues?


The staff of the Senate Defense Appropriations Subcommittee simply calls the Defense Department. They don’t call Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, or even one of his senior managers. Instead, they call mid-level bureaucrats who oversee specific programs and ask them if they want the add-on that a particular member has requested. If the answer is yes, the add-on will almost certainly get at least some money (unless the requester flunks test #1 above). If the DOD contact says no, the item will almost certainly get nothing.

This vetting process has lots of advantages. Members of Congress are virtually extorted into supporting defense appropriations bills. Also, in those numerous cases when an item flunks test #2 with the DOD, the appropriators can, and do, blame the Pentagon rather than making themselves be the object of resentment and retaliation from disappointed pork-hunting senators.

It all makes for an orderly, manageable system where everybody is satisfied – at least everybody in Congress; soldiers, Marines, etc., are clearly not a primary consideration.

In Conclusion

So, if you think “pork” in defense bills is stupid stuff that members of Congress stuff down the unwilling throat of the Defense Department, you’d be quite wrong. It’s worse than that; “pork” is unevaluated spending that Congress approves for its own membership on a bipartisan basis with the acquiescence of unnamed bureaucrats in the Pentagon. It is literally a step into the known in regards to cost, quality, and need.

The next “Defense Budget Tutorial: Pork: How to Get Rid of It” will attempt to identify some simply changes in procedure in Congress that would virtually end “pork” as we know it.

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Author(s): Winslow Wheeler
Winslow T. Wheeler
Straus Military Reform Project
Center for Defense Information
202 797-5271 in DC
301 840-1362 in MD