Congressional Staffer Lifts Veil On Post-Sept. 11 Defense Pork Projects
A veteran congressional defense aide has issued a scathing report on how Congress packed fiscal year 2002 defense spending bills with unnecessary funding—and siphoned money from potentially critical readiness needs—following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
Writing under the pen name "Spartacus," this longtime military readiness advocate writes in a new white paper that among the most egregious examples of politics taking precedence over warfighting needs is the Air Force's acceptance of a congressional plan for leasing Boeing planes to replace KC-135 tanker aircraft.
As devised by Sen. Ted Stevens (R-AK), the leasing plan would allow new air refuelers to be paid for out of operations and maintenance accounts, and only incrementally—thereby freeing up money in the early years for procurement of other hardware. Stevens is the powerful ranking minority member of the Senate Appropriations Committee. But, Spartacus notes, the Air Force had not even identified a need to buy any tankers for the near term in last year's Quadrennial Defense Review. Rather, the service had said it would study the options for modernizing its tanker fleet in an "analysis of alternatives."
Stevens called the Air Force shortly after Sept. 11 and "told them he wanted a proposal using 'creative funding' to acquire new Boeing aircraft to replace part of the aging KC-135 air-tanker fleet," Spartacus writes. Without waiting for a study of alternatives to be completed, Stevens "also wanted the Air Force to know that 'creative funding' meant leasing," according to the white paper.
"The compliant Air Force began littering Congress with briefings advocating two decisions," continues the report, which was issued solely on the congressional staffer's behalf and does not represent the views of his office. "First, without performing any 'analysis of alternatives,' it decided the Boeing 767 is the replacement for the KC-135, and it needed 100 of them. Second, the Air Force announced . . . it wanted to lease, then purchase" the planes.
At the end of 10 years, the Air Force could either extend the lease or possibly buy the tankers for $1 each, Spartacus explains.
But the arrangement is "not exactly" a good deal, according to the paper. The White House Office of Management and Budget estimated leasing would cost $22 billion, compared to purchasing the planes for $15.1 billion, measured in "nominal dollars" that are valued for the year in which they would be obligated.
The Defense Department's own Cost Analysis Improvement Group pegs an even greater advantage to buying, finding a 15 percent cost advantage to purchasing over leasing. The CAIG said leasing the planes would cost nearly $12 billion more than buying, measured over time in nominal dollars.
However, the cost difference did not deter Stevens from pursuing the deal, according to Spartacus. In fact, to keep the upfront costs minimal, the senator opted to transform a lease-purchase into an "operating lease," which "required changing the already bad idea . . . into a truly horrible idea," says Spartacus.
An operating lease required that the planes be commercially available items that would be returned to the original owner in commercial configuration at the end of 10 years.
"This meant the 767 deal had to go through some real contortions," states the paper. "First, the Air Force would have to lease a 767 airliner from Boeing, not a tanker. Then the Air Force would have to pay Boeing to modify the airliner into an air-tanker (cost: $30 million). The Air Force could then operate the aircraft for just 10 years, not the 40-year operating life the aircraft was expected to have. And, finally, before being returned to Boeing at the end of the lease, the air-tanker had to be re-modified by Boeing back into an airliner (for another $30 million). According to OMB calculations, this increased the total cost of the lease to $26 billion, while also decreasing the availability of the aircraft to the Air Force from 40 to 10 years."
U.S. News & World Report this week reported that the leasing period might even be as short as five to seven years, reducing expense but also giving the service less use from the new refuelers.
The Air Force proposal, incorporated into the fiscal year 2002 defense appropriations bill, drew the criticism of two senators, John McCain (R-AZ) and Phil Gramm (R-TX). They offered an amendment that Stevens accepted without debate, according to Spartacus.
Stevens "was smart to do so," the white paper states. "The terms of the amendment changed nothing, and he would accept it for that reason. The amendment was pure cosmetics, but now Sens. McCain and Gramm could claim they did something."
The notion of lawmakers pretending to serve the public trust carries over into the rest of Spartacus' new report, entitled "Mr. Smith Is Dead: No One Stands In The Way." The reference is to Frank Capra's 1939 film, "Mr. Smith Goes To Washington," in which Jimmy Stewart plays an honest senator who stands up against an army of crooked politicians and newspapers. Spartacus' white paper goes beyond the tanker-leasing deal to expose how patriotic-sounding political rhetoric has consistently failed to match the new spending laws Congress has passed. "Mr. Smith is dead," writes Spartacus, "and no one in Congress, not even the very few who pose as reformers, has any regrets. They're far too busy with something much more important: taking care of Number One." He adds, "The goals selected by senators and congressmen to advance their personal agendas are sometimes disguised as national defense programs; at other times they are simply hidden—usually poorly, but long enough to get passed—from the public. These goals frequently necessitate dropping other less important objectives, such as strengthening our armed forces or equipping them better at reasonable cost. In some happy situations, personal agendas and national interest coincide; when they don't, the choice is almost always in favor of personal interests." This formula was particularly noteworthy in the wake of last fall's terrorist attacks on Washington and New York, because the opportunity presented itself to implement patriotic rhetoric in the form of meaningful defense spending, Spartacus notes. But that largely did not occur because of the overriding pursuit of pork, he says.
"Despite a mountain of treasure being spent, the United States remains, and will remain, exquisitely vulnerable to myriad forms of terrorist attack," according to the report. "The effectiveness of any U.S. war against terrorism is eviscerated as Congress drains massive amounts of defense and antiterrorism funding from the warfighting parts of the defense budget to pursue self-promotion in the form of useless trash. Meanwhile, Congress persistently deceives the nation about just what is going on and snickers while false reformers play-act at the role of Mr. Smith." The report explains in footnoted detail how the House and Senate appropriators not only infused the defense appropriations bill—which was passed after Sept. 11—with add-ons for pet projects, but also cut the bill in questionable places to compensate. For example, lawmakers assumed the Defense Department would spend less for military travel in 2002 than in prior years, even though the ongoing war on terrorism would ostensibly call for increased travel. And other cuts dipped into operations and maintenance accounts many view as vital for military readiness, Spartacus says. Not only did the two chambers' appropriators "refuse to eliminate the phony cuts, they also refused to take care that the cuts they were requiring did not come out of the key training, spare parts, maintenance or operating expense accounts of the O&M budget: something they could have easily done by prohibiting such cuts in those places," writes the veteran staffer. "To do so would have been contrary to the goal they had quietly established: to lower spending in the O&M budget in order to increase it in the procurement and [research and development] budgets, which they had already laced with their state-specific add-ons," according to the report. "Offered the choice to load up the bill with pork projects for the members' home states and districts or to load up the combat units of the armed forces with extra training, spare parts, and other necessities for going to war in the most effective manner possible, members of Congress—all of them—opted for pork over military readiness."
The staff aide saves his most pointed barbs for McCain. By Spartacus' reckoning, "more than any other senator [McCain] has informed himself of the garbage packed into Congress' defense bills." Year after year he has taken to the Senate floor to publicly recite lists of the pork his colleagues have attached to defense spending bills.
Spartacus says McCain could have easily demanded that much of the pork he identified in the FY-02 defense appropriations conference bill be removed during the 11th hour vote on the package, when his colleagues were itching to go home for the year-end holiday break. McCain could have used a number of parliamentary procedures, including filibuster, to great effect, according to the staffer.
But the Arizona lawmaker "chose to do nothing," the aide writes. "He chose only to talk for a very short time. Rather than give reality to his words through action," McCain apologized for delaying their departure during his 30-minute speech. The senator had "unilaterally disarmed himself," Spartacus states. The appropriations bill passed the Senate in a 94-2 vote, with McCain and Gramm voting against. The legislation went up to the White House, where President Bush signed it into law on Jan. 12. Since the appropriations bill was passed, McCain has traded correspondence with OMB Director Mitchell Daniels on the KC-135 tanker replacement issue.
A spokeswoman for McCain today called Spartacus' allegations "ludicrous," adding, "at least Sen. McCain has the guts to put his name to the criticism." Defense sources say the congressional staffer has written repeatedly on condition of anonymity out of concern that publicly stating his views could cost him his job.
"Sen. McCain opposes earmarks in committee mark-up, scours appropriations bills for earmarks and offers amendments on the Senate floor to strike them, has succeeded at times in getting members to change their earmarks to allow the administration discretion in funding them, [and] argues constantly, loudly, and from every available forum against pork barrel spending," said Nancy Ives, McCain's spokeswoman. "It would be great to have some help with this effort because he's been waging a lonely battle for the past 20 years."
Despite McCain's repeated efforts to publicize pork, Spartacus labels the senator a pork "enabler." While the senator clearly proved his patriotism as a Vietnam prisoner of war, these days McCain seeks "the appearance of a reformer without the substance," according to the white paper. "In the final analysis he sinks to the level of the rest: He seeks to be accepted for something he is not. The others seek to be taken as patriots and statesmen while they snatch what they can for their self-advancement."
Ives said that if Spartacus "has some ideas for curbing the practice of earmarking other than those used by the senator [McCain], it's a pity he hasn't seen fit to share them with anyone." But the spokeswoman acknowledged she had not fully read the "Mr. Smith" report, which includes a detailed description of several parliamentary maneuvers Sen. McCain might have invoked to stymie passage of the appropriations bill.
Spartacus notes that President Bush identified cuts he did not favor in the defense appropriations package, but similarly went on to approve the bill. Bush said when he signed the bill that a $2 billion reduction Congress took in the appropriations bill "is largely achieved by cuts to operation and maintenance programs. . . . As a result, these cuts will place our military forces in the all-too-familiar predicament of having to choose either to sacrifice near-term readiness or to forego critical repair of family housing, defer important depot maintenance of our weapons systems, and reduce base operations."
"Like Sen. McCain," Spartacus writes, "the president chose words, not actions, to address Congress' deeds, and like Sen. McCain he joined the ranks of 'enablers' to permit Congress to substitute self-advancing pork and irrelevancies in lieu of more and better support for the soldiers and aircrews he had sent to fight and perhaps die in Afghanistan."
-- Elaine M. Grossman