Armed Services Chairman McKeon takes tough line on ‘hidden earmarks’

House Armed Services Committee Chairman Buck McKeon (R-Calif.) is taking a tougher line on so-called hidden earmarks. 

McKeon is discouraging House members from submitting funding proposals in the 2013 defense authorization bill that were criticized last year as efforts to make an end-run around the House earmark ban.

In a letter to committee members obtained by The Hill, McKeon said the proposals in question are not earmarks. But he also takes a tougher line than a year ago, telling members they should not submit “budgetary proposals” to reallocate money at all, because the cuts mandated in the 2013 defense budget means money is tight.

“Given the austere fiscal environment, our continued commitment to the war in Afghanistan, and the increasingly hostile global security environment, any reallocation of funds within the national defense budget function can only be for the most critical of security priorities,” McKeon wrote. “Therefore, I strongly discourage our members from offering budgetary legislative proposals.”

McKeon said he is unlikely to support these proposals unless there’s a compelling national security justification.

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McKeon is targeting proposals similar to the ones in last year’s bill, which critics said were earmarks by a different name. They said the funding proposals were basically earmarks because the proposals allocated funds the administration did not ask for.

McKeon defended them last year as being in the spirit and letter of the House earmark ban because they don’t move funds directly to a locality or entity.

A Democratic congressional aide said that last year’s bill was “loaded ... with pork in a less transparent way” than the earmarking process.

“Surprisingly, the Senate caught on and stripped out all the earmarks,” the aide said. “This year, they are looking to avoid that from happening by pushing the process further out of the public eye and making it less transparent.”

A Republican aide responded that the House voluntarily took out the provisions last year, and said the Democrats are now “pulling the fire alarm before you smell smoke.”

“The fact is the chairman has set a clear path to enable the committee to fulfill its oversight responsibilities by making substantive policy changes,” the Republican aide said. “Criticizing those proposals before they are even written seems a little kneejerk.”

Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) accused the House Armed Services Committee last year of having more than 100 amendments in the 2012 defense authorization bill that were earmarks. McKeon’s staff disputed the characterization, saying that McCaskill’s report labeled any change in spending levels as an earmark.

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has urged Congress not to tinker too much with the different parts of the defense budget, as he said the package works together to achieve the necessary savings.

“This is a zero-sum game,” Panetta said at Tuesday’s Senate hearing. “There is no free money here.”