Defense bill pays for Breathalyzers, Lewis and Clark celebrations

Budget watchdogs warn that the 2006 defense appropriations bill includes more earmarks for questionable projects than ever before.

Several watchdogs argue that the bill is peppered with millions of dollars for museums and national parks, as well as natural resources and roads, projects that at least on the surface, appear to have little to do with military operations.

The 2005 defense appropriations bill contained a record 2,671 parochial and politically motivated earmarks worth $12.2 billion, and the 2006 spending bill is set to surpass that, according to Keith Ashdown, vice president of policy at Taxpayers for Common Sense.

“In other appropriations bills, earmarking appears to be declining, but in contrast defense earmarks are continuing to increase,” he said. “This concerns us deeply. Earmarking defense dollars dilutes the effectiveness of defense spending.”

But the increase in so-called pork-barrel projects is just part of the growth pattern of the defense budget, according to Winslow Wheeler, a project director with the Center for Defense Information and a former longtime staffer on the Senate Budget Committee.

In the 2001 bill, such projects grew to $2 billion, then doubled shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks, in the 2002 spending bill, Wheeler said. In the 2003 defense appropriations bill, the earmarks doubled again, reaching $8 billion for the 2004 fiscal year, Wheeler added. For the 2005 fiscal year, the earmarks grew to $12 billion.

“I would be surprised if it weren’t growing,” Wheeler said. “It is a no-penalty exercise, and members see this as something essential to their well-being.”

The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are giving members plenty of political cover for the rapidly expanding defense budget.

“If this were peacetime and people expected the defense budget to remain stable, it would be more obvious that this is growing to an outrageous pace,” Wheeler said.

Programs receiving earmarks in the defense bill are not necessarily underfunded, nor do they have any kind of strategic importance, Ashdown said.

“Earmarks undergo virtually no review, making it impossible to distinguish between truly meritorious projects and those that are pure pork,“ he said.

A brief rundown of 2006 earmarks compiled by Taxpayers for Common Sense includes a $4.8 million U.S. Navy project for the city of Twenty-nine Palms, Calif., to widen a road leading to one of the Marine Corps’s major training bases, also called Twenty-nine Palms. Twenty-nine Palms is in the district of Rep. Jerry Lewis, the chairman of the House Appropriations Committee and the former chairman of the defense appropriations subcommittee.

Only one road, Adobe Road, leads from the city to the military base, said Jim Specht, Lewis’s spokesman. The road becomes congested on a normal day, but the traffic is unwieldy during a training exercise, he said.

“When they bring in a new rotation, it really jams up,” he said.

Marines are flown onto the base by helicopter, but their equipment still must be transported on the ground, he said. Expanding Adobe Road will speed access to the base, Specht argued.

“It has been a problem for a while, but this is the first time [Lewis] got money for it,” Specht said.

The Department of Defense can’t work on it directly. Instead, the federal defense money will go to the state’s highway and roads department.

“It is more of a local community concern,” rather than a concern coming from the Marine Corps, Specht said. “The actual problem was with the community,” he added.

At first glance, another project appears to have even less reason to be included in the defense spending bill.

The bill dedicates $3.4 million for Lewis and Clark bicentennial activities. Sen. Conrad Burns (R-Mont.), a member of the Senate appropriations panel, initially requested the funding, according to a spokesman, who noted that the money benefits several states, although the majority of the bicentennial program takes place in Montana. The spokesman also explained that $1.8 million goes to personnel working on the program and $1.6 million is devoted to the operation of the program.

The funds appeared under the Army National Guard military personnel account, and technically it is a National Guard-run program, according to the spokesman. But the program benefits civilians.

“It is a program for tourism and celebrating a really important part of our history,” said Burns’s spokesman.

Wheeler said the money for the Lewis and Clark bicentennial is nothing new and has been included in the bill for several years. This year, the money ensures “ceremonial, educational, safety, security and logistics” support for up to 10 students from each state and territory selected to participate in “the youth rendezvous,” according to the bill.

“Members of Congress love to be able to pick students to participate in government-paid programs,” Wheeler said. “It is great politics because a student not only remembers you but their families and their cousins remember you.”

In addition, under the defense appropriations bill’s operations and maintenance title, $2 million is allocated to Fort Baker, Calif. The fort is no longer a military installation (it used to be a 19th century Army post) but a national park located in Rep. Nancy Pelosi’s (D-Calif.) district. A spokesperson for Pelosi did not return phone calls by press time.

Under the Army Operations and Maintenance Budget section of the bill, $900,000 is allocated for an item called “Memorial Day” with no other explanation.

“Somebody is going to have a good Memorial Day,” Wheeler quipped.

Some $3.4 million of that section of the budget also is allocated for Breathalyzers, said Wheeler.

Taxpayers for Common Sense cites several other projects the group deems pork. Among them: $500,000 for the Arctic Winter Games, which take place in Alaska; $3.8 billion for the Intrepid Sea-Air-Space Foundation; $850,000 for the Fort Des Moines Memorial Park and Education Center; $1.5 million to the Battleship Texas Foundation to restore and preserve the battleship and $1 million to the Pennsylvania Veterans Museum Media Armory.