National Security

Pork Will Find a Way

How Congress can fund its pet projects -- even without earmarks.

Rep. Clarence D. "Doc" Long, a colorful Maryland Democrat who served in the House from the 1960s to 1980s, had a unique take on the Golden Rule befitting a subcommittee chairman of the powerful House Appropriations Committee. "Them that has the gold makes the rules," read a sign he reportedly hung in the House Appropriations Committee hearing room. Any Washington lawmaker or lobbyist can vouch for the truth of this statement: while other congressional committees set policy, it's the appropriators, known as the "cardinals," who hold the purse strings and therefore an outsized degree of power.

Nowhere is this truer than defense, which represents the biggest slice of the fiscal pie Congress controls. The Defense Department is the largest federal agency in the United States, consuming more than half of discretionary spending, purchasing more than $1 billion of goods and services every day, and employing some 3 million people globally. These factors make defense appropriations a "must pass" spending bill, the sheer size and complexity of which attracts lots of parochial projects that spread the wealth to lawmakers' home districts. In the words of an equally colorful contemporary of Doc Long's named Charlie Wilson (D-TX), "Anybody with any brain can figure out that if they can get on the defense subcommittee, that's where they ought to be, because that's where the money is."

The defense spending bill is still Congress's largest, but its riches will not be as accessible to lawmakers as in the past. The 113th Congress faces a decline in defense funding regardless of "fiscal cliff" outcomes. The last Congress passed a moratorium on earmarks -- provisions lawmakers add to bills that direct funds to specific projects -- after years of scandals and criticism over excessive pork-barreling. And in the recent elections, voters rejected Republican candidates' assertion that defense spending should stay high in order to protect local jobs. So how will the cardinals of the 113th keep defense dollars flowing to their districts, and what will that mean for defense policy?

A look at the changing constellations in the defense appropriations firmament provides some indication. While the Senate Defense Appropriations Subcommittee will still be run by longtime chairman Daniel Inouye (D-HI) and ranking member Thad Cochran (R-MS) -- both of whom also lead the full committee -- the House subcommittee saw powerful ranking member and longtime cardinal Norm Dicks (D-WA) retiring and Chairman C.W. Bill Young (R-FL) forced out by term limits. The number two on the Republican side, Jerry Lewis of California, is also retiring, and the names most frequently floated for chairman are Rodney Frelinghuysen of New Jersey and Jack Kingston of Georgia. Frelinghuysen's district is home to Picatinny Arsenal, a large Army munitions base with almost 5,000 military and civilian personnel, while Kingston's district contains four military installations, including the massive Fort Stewart Army base.

The biggest dog in the fight for ranking member is also the most controversial. Pete Visclosky (D-IN) is entering his 28th year in the House after winning reelection by a landslide last week. He took a hiatus from his chairmanship of the Energy and Water subcommittee in 2009 while under investigation for his connections to a lobbying firm indicted for funneling millions in illegal campaign contributions to lawmakers in exchange for millions worth of earmarks. The top beneficiaries of the firm, called the PMA Group, were all cardinals: Visclosky, Young, Virginia Republican James Moran, Ohio Democrat Marcy Kaptur, and the king of the cardinals, John Murtha (D-PA).

Murtha, who died in office in February 2010, spent 21 years as either chairman or ranking member of the House Defense Appropriations Subcommittee. As overlord of billions of dollars in defense funding, he gave audience to countless people looking for a piece of the action and directed hundreds of millions of dollars in defense-related projects to his district. He was also the subject of several ethical inquiries. Though the House Ethics Committee report on the PMA affair failed to assign blame to any lawmaker (PMA Group lobbyists pleaded guilty to federal criminal charges), it noted that "there is a widespread perception among corporations and lobbyists that campaign contributions provide enhanced access to Members," appropriators being the most valued members of all.

Yet the clear predilection for earmarks among other rising cardinals will invite arguments from some lawmakers to bring back earmarks. Sen. Inouye has long claimed earmarks allow him to serve his constituents better than "Washington bureaucrats" and that it's his responsibility to produce bills that "will attract the votes necessary to pass the full Senate." But defense bills have not been slowed by the lack of earmarks, and boosters will have an uphill battle considering that President Obama and a majority of House lawmakers support the moratorium.

However, that doesn't mean that pork is dead. Even if the earmarks moratorium remains in some form, we can count on a profusion of the "committee initiatives" that took their place in recent bills, many of which mimic language for programs disclosed as earmarks just a couple of years earlier. For example, some of the $3 billion House appropriators added to the Fiscal Year 2013 spending bill last May went to programs like Starbase, a children's education program that was disclosed as a $4 million earmark in 2009. A preference for Army programs is also likely, particularly in the House, where all the candidates either have major army bases in their districts or, in the case of Visclosky, an industry that serves them (Visclosky is head of the Congressional Steel Caucus, which has fought for armored military vehicles to use only domestically produced steel).

No one believes the executive branch should have exclusive control over federal funding, but excessive congressional budgeteering has the potential to alter or even derail defense policy. An extreme example is the aforementioned Charlie Wilson immortalized in the book Charlie Wilson's War, who funded a war in Afghanistan through earmarks. But in the current zero-sum economic environment, even relatively small additions to spending bills leach money from pressing military needs, which is why so many earmarks are paid for by filching from the operations and maintenance budgetary accounts.

Whatever form it takes, Congress has extra incentive during these lean times to squeeze as many parochial benefits as possible from the defense budget. That would be a mistake; we have to wean ourselves off excessive defense spending to maintain our fiscal health. The past decade's budgetary buildup and earmark explosion enhanced the perception of DOD as a gravy train, and too many small businesses, research institutions, and consulting companies built their businesses around military spending. This moment marks a critical opportunity to turn that train around. Letting our national defense become an economic engine instead of a fighting one will only weigh it down and make it less able to protect us when called.

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Democracy Lab

Beware of Mirages

The Obama Administration is pursuing closer ties with the military in Burma -- a policy that could undermine efforts to build democracy.

President Barack Obama's visit to Burma last week lasted just six hours. He did not visit Naypidaw, the political capital -- reportedly at the request of democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who initially opposed the visit as coming too soon in Burma's tentative reform process. Instead, President Obama met with President Thein Sein and Aung San Suu Kyi in Rangoon.

Only as Obama arrived did the government announce it would submit to inspections of its nuclear facilities, a step meant to address concerns over Naypidaw's dealings with North Korea. The government also released several dozen political prisoners and agreed to a process for reviewing the cases of others by the end of the year. "It's like they're using political prisoners as political bargaining chips," Letyar Htun, a former student activist told The Irrawaddy after his release from Tharrawaddy prison.

These steps, although welcome, didn't justify a presidential visit, unless the administration's top priority in Burma has shifted, from supporting a democratic transition to enlisting it in the "pivot," the administration's plan to reorient U.S. foreign policy towards Asia and away from the Middle East. An aide's comments about the pivot and the president's "foreign policy legacy" suggest that is the case. The president's visit, following suspension of sanctions, and the return of an ambassador to Rangoon makes a revival of ties with Burma's armed forces the administration's next priority.

Relationships with militaries like Burma's often bear the burdens of unrealistic expectations by civilian and defense officials eager to justify them for strategic reasons. In Burma's case, that would be a mistake. Washington has shunned Burma's military, known as the Tatmadaw, since it crushed the 1988 student-led democracy protests and nullified the 1990 election results that overwhelmingly favored Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy party and its ethnic allies. As recently as 2010, Washington pursued a commission of inquiry into Burma's human rights abuses -- including rape and child conscription by the military -- an effort that has been abandoned as the United States inches its way toward a rapprochement.

The argument that exposure to the United States and its military is good for officers from non-democracies sounds reasonable and so far the Pentagon stresses it will focus on non-combat activities like disaster relief, searching for the remains of American servicemen who died in Burma during World War II, and engaging in dialogue.

Tin Maung Maung Than, a senior fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore, observes that there has been no change in the institutional culture of the Burmese military over six decades, noting wryly that U.S. training in the late 1950s did not stop the 1962 coup by the former Prime Minister and General Ne Win. "These guys who came back from Leavenworth and Benning took part in the coup anyway."

Washington's priorities were different then, but even after the end of the Cold War and democratic transitions in South Korea, Taiwan and the Philippines, Washington didn't always make military reform a priority. In her book, The Mission, Dana Priest reported extensively on the U.S. engagement with the Indonesian military, known as the Tentara Nasional Indonesia, or TNI, under the dictator Suharto. After the TNI engaged in a campaign of violence to thwart East Timor's independence referendum in the late 1990s, writes Priest, "U.S. officials were chagrined to learn that 5 of the 15 Indonesian military officers named by the country's human rights commission as allegedly involved in ‘crimes against humanity' in East Timor were former IMET students," referring to the United States' International Military and Education Training program. Military engagement undermined support for a democratic transition as U.S. diplomats and military officials embraced Prabowo Subianto, Suharto's son-in-law and presumed successor. Prabowo, a top performer at U.S. training centers, was even then, according to Defense Intelligence Agency cables, known to be violent and volatile, and his unit was later implicated in torture and killings of democracy protesters.

Nor was a hard-headed approach emphasizing practical over moral objectives necessarily supported by Washington's experience. Admiral Denis Blair, Commander in Chief of U.S. Pacific Command in the late 1990s, told Priest that neither he nor his subordinates tried to use their contacts with Indonesian officers to stop the violence in East Timor, stating: "It is fairly rare that the personal relations made through an IMET course can come into play in resolving a future crisis." After the experience in Indonesia (which included the Pentagon's evasion of a congressional cut-off funds for training the TNI), the U.S. Congress required human rights vetting for participants, a difficult task under the best of circumstances. The U.S. Embassy in Nepal had to recall a participant from a training course after belatedly discovering evidence that his unit was involved in civilian disappearances.

But the U.S. can't expect foreign countries to make reforms when Washington hasn't reconciled its own priorities. News reports of President Obama's post-Rangoon visit to Phnom Penh, where he met strongman Hun Sen, recount "tense" exchanges over human rights. At the same time, the Washington Post reported this month that the Pentagon is training counterterror units and special forces -- despite a minimal need for them and despite Cambodia's poor human rights record. According to the Post, the United States has embraced Hun Sen's three sons, including awarding a full scholarship to West Point for the eldest, Hun Manet, who is now serving as a major general and being groomed to succeed his father. Incidentally, the younger Hun continued to attend West Point after a bloody 1997 coup by his father forced out democratically-elected coalition partners.

The desire to enlist Burma's military in the Asia pivot will create incentives for the United States to give short shrift to the democratic transition. That may already be happening. In September, Kurt M. Campbell, the top Asia official at the State Department spoke of an imminent intensification of U.S. engagement and hinted that the blacklist the United States maintains on corrupt businessmen, officials and military officers "has to reflect the new realities inside the country and not inhibit ... the kind of investments in reform that we want to see."

In the late 1980s, the desire to maintain American support also figured in the decisions of dictatorial regimes allied with Washington to step aside. The desire of Burma's still un-elected leadership to at least balance neighboring China's influence in their country is clearly a factor in Burma's precarious political opening. The United States should use it to press for reform and accountability in the Tatmadaw, long considered one of the world's most opaque, corrupt, and brutal armed forces.

Burma will test the Obama administration's claim that democracy and human rights are at "the heart" of its pivot to Asia. Moving ahead with military engagement at the expense of political reform could derail a democratic transition as well as undermine the likelihood that Burma's military will become a suitable partner for the U.S. in the region. No wonder Aung San Suu Kyi, standing on the steps of the house in which she spent 15 years under house arrest, warned the U.S. president: "We have to be very careful that we're not lured by a mirage of success." 

Photo by Soe Than WIN/AFP/Getty Images