House panel approves $11 billion increase in defense spending

After debating the merits of military bands and NASCAR sponsorships, the House Appropriations Committee on Tuesday approved a measure that would swell defense spending by $11 billion.

The panel unanimously agreed to a $530 billion 2012 appropriations bill that, when added to a $14 billion military construction measure, would hand the Pentagon $544 billion next year. That would be $9 billion less than the Obama administration requested, but $11 billion over the enacted 2011 amount.

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In addition, it would hand the Pentagon $119 billion for overseas wars. That is $842 million more than the Obama administration sought. 

“This increase is mostly attributable to the transfer of the Pakistan Counterinsurgency Fund from the [purview of the panel’s] State/Foreign Operations subcommittee to the Defense subcommittee,” Rep. Bill Young (R-Fla.), the Defense subcommittee chairman, said in a statement.

The panel’s measure would be a win for defense firms and military personnel.

It would include a 1.6 percent pay hike for personnel, the same as a House-passed defense authorization bill.

It would provide $107.6 billion for procurement, $3.6 billion less than the Pentagon requested. But it would be an increase of $5.5 billion over the 2011 enacted level, according to an Appropriations Committee fact sheet.

The measure would give the department $15.1 billion to buy 10 Navy ships; $5.9 billion to purchase 32 Lockheed Martin-made F-35s; $2.8 billion to buy 116 Sikorsky-manufactured Blackhawk helicopters; and $699 million to acquire 48 General Atomics-built MQ-9 Reaper unmanned aircraft, according to the Appropriations Committee.

The legislation does not provide funding for a project to build a second F-35 fighter engine, a red-hot political issue for this Congress. Prime contractors Rolls-Royce and GE have said they will self-fund the F136 engine through 2012; the Pentagon has said for years that it is too expensive and operationally unnecessary.

But of those issues, only the F-35 fighter program was a subject of the committee’s two hours of work during a markup session. 

And most of that talk featured committee members, including Young and Defense subcommittee Chairman Norm Dicks (D-Wash.), praising the F-35 program despite a year marred by technical problems, cost spikes and schedule delays.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates earlier this year placed the B variant of the F-35 — made for the Marine Corps to take off and land vertically — on two years’ probation due to several lingering technical hurdles.

Young and Dicks said they had wanted to add funds to the appropriations measure so the Pentagon could have purchased more than 32 F-35s next year.

“The program has really turned a corner” since the Pentagon in February sent Congress its 2012 budget plan, which trimmed the number of planned 2012 buys, said Dicks, also the ranking member of the full committee.

He said he hopes that “later in the process we can get the other chamber to agree” to add funds to the final version of Pentagon spending legislation so the military can buy more F-35s.

But most of the session was devoted to debate about amendments examining smaller matters.

The panel approved an amendment offered by Rep. Betty McCollum (D-Minn.) that would limit the amount of 2012 monies the Pentagon could spend on military bands to $200 million. 

The military has hundreds of bands, many made up of full-time musicians. The Pentagon is set to spend $320 million on its bands next year, McCollum said, citing data she got from the Defense Department.

“Congress performs no oversight over this part of the [defense] budget,” she said.

Prior to a voice vote, Young said he and his GOP members “reluctantly support” limiting the military’s band fund.

McCollum was defeated later, however, when she sought to limit the amount of funds the Pentagon could spend on sponsorships for NASCAR, professional fishing tours and professional wrestling.

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In the longest debate about a single issue of the two-hour markup, members sparred over the merits of the military services’ NASCAR sponsorships.

McCollum has calculated the Army, Air Force and Navy spend a total of $7.4 million on these kinds of sponsorship deals.

There is no clear data showing the military gets anything resembling a positive return on this investment, McCollum said.

Young noted his native state is the home of the famed Daytona International Speedway, and has big NASCAR ties. He counseled McCollum against doubting the connection NASCAR sponsorship efforts by the military have on its recruiting efforts.

Rep. Sanford Bishop Jr. (D-Ga.) warned McCollum to avoid dismissing the connection between NASCAR and the young Americans who typically join the military — noting many new recruits are from the South, where stock car racing remains most popular.