Politics & Policy

Who’s Afraid of Competition?

Defense earmarks undermine our military.

As this year’s congressional session comes to a close, the American people should pay special attention to not just what was added at the last minute, but what was taken out.

While Congress was siphoning billions of dollars from accounts that train and equip our troops to fund billions of dollars of their own pet projects, members were simultaneously, and behind closed doors, gutting an amendment that I offered to the Defense Authorization Bill (which the Senate accepted) that would force competition for earmarked no-bid contracts and grants. In a time of war, our troops deserve the best equipment, which isn’t necessarily the equipment a politician in Washington thinks will create jobs in his or her state. My amendment would have helped ensure that defense dollars were allocated on the basis of merit, not political connections.

This year’s Defense bill contains $5.3 billion of earmarks, the vast majority of which have nothing to do with major weapons acquisition programs like new mine-resistant and Stryker vehicles, C-130J transports, or new ships and submarines. In fact, these earmarks typically removed money from the Defense Department’s procurement and Operations and Maintenance (O&M) accounts and moved the money to Research and Development.

The $5.3 billion in defense earmarks could have bought 200 Stryker Armored Vehicles, 26 F/A-18 Super Hornet fighters, 26 C-130 transports, or 80 Blackhawk helicopters. Instead, much of that money is buying nothing more than political insurance for politicians in Washington.

Members of Congress rarely miss an opportunity to explain that they know better than the “unelected or faceless bureaucrats” in the Pentagon. Yet, Congress’s role is not to supplant the military by choosing winners and losers or awarding sole-source contracts to their own pet projects, political supporters and campaign contributors. Instead, Congress’s role is oversight. Congress is not a helpless victim to the whim of the “faceless bureaucrats.” Congress has the power to withhold funding from projects that aren’t working. One reason bureaucrats remain faceless is because Congress has not done its job of inviting them to testify at oversight hearings.

If Congress truly knows best, they should have no reason to stand in the way of competition or fear an evaluation of their earmarks by the Department of Defense. Earmarks should be taken to the floor and voted on, and Congress should abide by the same competition requirements that everyone else must follow.

Let me explain how the process of defense earmarks works in the halls of power: Very rarely does an experienced weapons-systems engineer, aerospace engineer or naval architect come to work in the Senate. Instead, earmark requests typically start with a constituent meeting or something worse. Those who review earmark requests — unelected congressional staff — often have little in the way of significant military or real world experience. Staff then seeks an endorsement by persons within the defense establishment who are hesitant to offend the institution that provides their funding.

This process rarely produces anything objective, as the arguments made in support of a project often are provided by the same entity that would receive the proposed funding. The process is rigged: The sponsor of the project can claim his or her earmark has been vetted by the Defense Department while the approving entity, such as a Defense Department lab that wasn’t funded in the president’s budget, can benefit from increased funding via the earmark.

The Appropriations Committee then claims to vet every earmark, but with a staff of less than a dozen and tens of thousands of requests, this is doubtful. In point of fact, the Appropriations Committee has fought to ensure that the Defense Department does not evaluate any earmark’s “value to the service” and has actively opposed my efforts to force the Pentagon to provide a “Defense Earmark Report Card” that would allow real military experts in the Pentagon to tell Congress what it thinks of defense earmarks.

If Congress wants to be taken seriously in their claims of supporting the troops they should be focused on funding the priorities of our soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines and their commanders — not the priorities of lobbyists, campaign donors, and special interests. When politicians argue that they know better than the commanders on the ground we should hold them accountable by demanding that each of those projects is evaluated objectively and subjected to competition like every other contract. Congress should be forced to play by the rules they set for others, particularly when funding the wrong priorities costs American lives.

U.S. Senator Tom Coburn, M.D. (R.,Okla.) is a practicing physician.


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