Shortly after the midterm elections, as his fellow Republicans lay moaning on a row of hospital stretchers, South Carolina Sen. Jim DeMint made a decision: He wasn't going to stick earmarks for his state into any more spending bills. If some greedy constituent expected him to bring some pork back home, that was just tough. He was through with earmarking—with one caveat. "There should be some very limited earmarks in defense spending bills," the senator says.
South Carolina came out a winner in the last few defense packages, with $102 million in the 2005 bill and $131 million in 2006. And that included items, such as "coastal cancer prevention," that are difficult to link with either of America's ongoing wars. What does DeMint think about them? "We've got a defense industry in South Carolina," he says. "We have contractors who are simply the best equipped to handle some of the programs in these bills."
Ask any one of DeMint's 99 colleagues if his or her state deserves a few defense-related earmarks, and you'll get a similar answer. In the House the answers will be more specific: South Carolina needs those military contracts, sure, but here in the 1st, or 2nd, or 3rd District we're especially good at building jet tanks and ammo clips. Military spending is both massive and politically untouchable.
That fact poses a formidable challenge for anyone who wants to take a knife to government spending. In the wake of the slow-motion car wreck that was the Social Security reform debate, everyone agrees that cuts in entitlement spending are politically impossible in the short term. That means outlays amounting to 8.4 percent of the gross domestic product won't be touched. Anti-pork, anti-spending activists are more sanguine about their progress in slicing fat out of transportation and other nondefense appropriation bills. But they're the first to admit that far more money is wasted in defense bills—3.9 percent of GDP—than in the latest package of highway fix-ups. And that doesn't include the supplemental spending bills that during the last four years have funneled more than $300 billion into the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Unfortunately, that spending is as untouchable as Social Security.
Part of the problem is outright pork, the kind of projects that legislators like DeMint have doggedly pursued, with occasional success, in nondefense discretionary spending. The final version of the 2006 Department of Defense appropriations bill, for example, included $1.3 million for Lewis and Clark Appreciation Day. In 2005 the Foreign Supplier Assessment Center, operated by a firm involved in bribing former California Republican Rep. Duke Cunningham, received $3 million in funds. In the 2006 budget, passed before Cunningham resigned, its appropriation shot up to $9 million.
In the early months of this year, the Democratic Congress passed an emergency spending bill for Iraq that included $20 billion in pork, including $74 million for peanut storage and $100 million for citrus growers, to bring stragglers on board. President Bush and the GOP denounced these spending items vehemently and repeatedly. But that was just camouflage for their real objection to the bill: that it set a timetable for a troop withdrawal. Bush didn't have trouble signing a pork-laden defense bill just a year earlier, when the emergency appropriations for Iraq somehow included $700 million to relocate railroad tracks in Mississippi.
In the absence of controversial timetables, neither party will even talk about cutting spending that goes largely to the Defense Department or to fund a war. The Democrats, in particular, have many reasons to shy away from slashing military spending. "The Democrats are out to prove themselves in the area of national security," says Nick Schwellenbach, a fellow at the Project on Government Oversight, a nonprofit group that monitors federal spending. "They won't touch the budget for defense because they're afraid of those negative ads. It's impossible to kill weapons systems right now."
Military spending bills, always complicated and always larded up at the last minute, are the stuff of great political ads. One anti–John Kerry commercial from 2004 portrayed weapons and military vehicles literally vanishing from a battle scene, each representing a program the Massachusetts senator had voted against.
That anti-Kerry ad illustrated a larger point: Some of those cuts were supported by Republicans, too. As Kerry haplessly explained on the campaign trail, George H.W. Bush's Department of Defense, run by Dick Cheney, worked with Congress to reduce defense spending and shrink the Pentagon after the end of the Cold War. That effort continued into the 1990s, as defense spending fell below 4 percent of GDP. The decline was one of those rare points of agreement between President Bill Clinton and Republicans like Newt Gingrich.
"My dad served 27 years in the army," Gingrich wrote in a 1998 article for Government Technology, arguing for deep defense cuts and a 40 percent decrease in Pentagon staff. "I'm a hawk. But I'm a cheap hawk." Gingrich could get away with that position for three reasons: The Cold War was over, he was a Republican, and he was not alone.
As the cliché goes, 9/11 changed everything. Winslow Wheeler was working as a Republican staffer on the Senate Budget Committee as $4 billion was added to the first post-9/11 defense appropriations and emergency supplemental spending. "I was horrified that Congress would use that bill, at that time, as an opportunity to increase the pork," recalls Wheeler, now a scholar at the Center for Defense Information, a Pentagon watchdog group. Since he left his Senate job in 2002, earmarks have ballooned: The 2006 bill contained 2,800 earmarks worth $9.8 billion, more than twice the amount that offended him in 2002. "All the so-called reforms, the 'sunshine' on earmarks in defense bills, I regard as pretty much a joke," he says.
When the 2007 budget awarded $439 billion to the Department of Defense, the White House bragged that defense spending had risen 7 percent from 2006 and 48 percent from the 2001 budget, the last one passed before 9/11. Billions of those dollars are earmarked by legislators, and plenty of the spending is pork, but there is no political will to alter that in a post-9/11 Congress.
In March a Gallup poll found that 43 percent of Americans thought we were spending "too much" on defense while only 20 percent thought we were spending "too little." It was the biggest gap in the spending cutters' favor since the early 1990s. And yet neither the current debate in Congress nor the leading candidates in the 2008 presidential race are reflecting that dissatisfaction.
"I've never been one who's believed on the defense budget side that earmarks were that big of a problem," says former Sen. Jim Talent (R-Mo.), now a fellow at the Heritage Foundation. "There are wasteful expenditures, but what you're often seeing is Congress trying to pry into the system, to put into the law this or that line item because they believe strongly in a project. I would not compare that to pork."
For his part, DeMint isn't satisfied with the system: "No one's accountable when we do it the way we do now," he says.
Yet that common-sense complaint is likely to fall on deaf ears. Talent argues that overall military spending is too low, and that it should be kept at a minimum of 4 percent of GDP—or as he calls his plan, "4 percent for freedom." Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney has been stumping for the idea and has suggested adding 100,000 soldiers to the standing army. Romney's potential Democratic opponent Barack Obama also has argued for increased defense spending, but he would settle for only 92,000 more soldiers. Despite the polls and despite the pork, that might be as close to a debate over the defense budget as we're likely to get anytime soon.