Senators John McCain and Barack Obama have both announced trips to visit the troops in Iraq. The presidential candidates hope to gain support from three groups that will be important in November: military members, veterans, and voters who consider supporting the troops a top priority.
While sharing the same objective, each senator will likely take a different approach when speaking to deployed service members.
Expect the senator from Arizona to speak about his national security-experience, his wartime service, and his commitment to letting the troops finish the mission in Iraq. Expect the senator from Illinois to speak with inspiring rhetoric about an uplifting personal biography and a promise to quickly bring the troops home to their families. Both will promise a bipartisan approach to supporting the military, and their words are sure to impress.
To those of us who have served on the ground in combat zones, however, talk is cheap. Actions matter more. To that end, there is one simple, bipartisan action that both presidential candidates can take together to demonstrate that they mean what they say. McCain and Obama should cosponsor a rule change in Congress to end defense- and intelligence-contract earmarks for specific companies.
Congress’s national-security favor factory works like this: certain powerful members specifically designate, or earmark, lucrative contracts for defense and intelligence programs to specifically named companies whose leaders (coincidentally, everyone insists) then deliver generous contributions to the campaigns, political-action committees (PACs), and nonprofit organizations run by the same members.
While many in Congress uphold the honor and trust of their office by refusing to participate in this shameful game, the worst offenders tend to reside in leadership or on the committees that authorize and appropriate national-security spending. Key House and Senate committees include Armed Services, Intelligence, and, of course, Appropriations.
In most cases, the defense and intelligence agencies do not vet the companies and do not request the programs, so there is virtually no oversight over the funds once sent to the companies. Even worse, the politically connected companies often lack real qualifications to deliver the promised capability.
The results reflect what many Americans have unfortunately come to expect from their government: taxpayer money wasted and public trust abused. In the area of national-security earmarks, though, the results are often much worse.
In Iraq and Afghanistan, I saw firsthand how congressional misuse of national-security spending resulted in lost opportunities on the battlefield and even, sadly, lost lives.
The most egregious example was the then-classified Counter-IED Targeting Program in 2004 and 2005. Members of Congress funneled a contract worth tens of millions major contributors who failed to deliver the most urgent request from our troops in Iraq. The skyrocketing casualties from IEDs that followed, and the subsequent collapse in public support for the war, reveal the price our troops and our nation paid while our representatives in Congress were cashing their checks.
Several of the key players are now imprisoned or under federal investigation, but much of what was done is technically legal, even if morally outrageous. Nothing has changed in Congress that would prevent the same from happening again, especially regarding spending on classified programs that mostly goes through the intelligence committees and often escapes the most basic scrutiny.
Recent analysis of the latest round of national security-earmarks shows billions more funneled from specific congressmen to specific companies, mostly unrequested and unvalidated by the Pentagon or intelligence community.
For example, Silvestre Reyes (D., Tex.) was once an obscure congressman but is now chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence. He is suddenly also a top fundraiser from companies nationwide that receive defense and intelligence contracts. Similarly, the watchdog group Taxpayers for Common Sense recently found that 95 percent of House Armed Services Committee members took political contributions from owners of companies that receive earmarks. Despite much talk of reform, Congress remains unlikely to correct itself.
The presidential candidates, though, are high-profile senators in a unique position to push for meaningful bipartisan reform. Co-sponsorship would cut through the partisan noise and could facilitate the media spotlight needed to prod toward real change a Congress that is heavily invested in the profitable status quo.
Stopping the practice of directing national-security spending to specific companies will also help the candidates get votes. Our deployed troops, veterans, and their supporters would see meaningful action behind the campaign rhetoric about change, reform, and supporting the troops in combat.
The troops will listen to the speeches. But they will vote based on action.
— Major Eric Egland is a reserve military-intelligence officer and author of The Troops Need You America and founder of TroopsNeedYou.com.