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.