Showdown looms in House on measure to end military’s NASCAR sponsorships

House Armed Services Committee Chairman Buck McKeon (R-Calif.) this week struck back at a measure ending the military’s sponsorship of NASCAR, setting the stage for a showdown on the House floor next month.

McKeon raised a point of order against a provision in the Defense appropriations bill that would kill military sponsorships of NASCAR and other sporting events. And the Rules Committee decided Thursday to allow a vote on the House floor to strip it from the bill.

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McKeon had to object to the provision because it passed the full Appropriations Committee — something that failed to happen for a similar measure in committee and on the House floor in 2011.

One big difference: Last year’s NASCAR amendment was pushed by Rep. Betty McCollum (D-Minn.), but this time around she was joined by a Tea Party Republican, Rep. Jack Kingston (Ga.). Kingston voted for McCollum’s amendment in 2011, but now he’s leading the charge and trying to convince members in his party that the idea is a good one.

Kingston’s drive will put Republicans into dueling camps during floor debate of the Defense appropriations bill, as defense committee heads like McKeon and Defense Appropriations subcommittee Chairman C.W. Bill Young (R-Fla.) are opposed.

The conflict features issues Republicans tend to be fond of — cutting spending, the military and NASCAR — against one another. While the $80 million in funding that’s at stake is a small fraction of the Appropriations Committee’s proposed $519 billion base Pentagon budget, the issue raises passions because of its ties to auto racing.

Kingston argued in the Appropriations markup that ending the NASCAR sponsorships was not being against the military or racing, but was about not wasting taxpayer funds.

Kingston and McCollum argue there’s no evidence that the sponsorships lead to new recruits, one of the military’s main arguments for sponsoring NASCAR and other sporting events.

“I am a conservative Republican. I'm very pro-military, but at some point we've got to get in the habit of cutting programs that are less efficient and less effective,” Kingston said before the committee vote in May.

“For $20 million for one NASCAR race, have we lost our minds? And have we lost them permanently? I'd say this is a great place to send a signal,” he said.

Though Young opposed the amendment, it passed on a divided voice vote.

The amendment sparked a backlash from NASCAR supporters and its drivers — including Dale Earnhardt Jr., who is sponsored by the National Guard.

Earnhardt suggested that Kingston needed to do his “homework” on NASCAR and knocked him for not having attended a race.

“Just because he's a Republican from Georgia, he ought to have been to a NASCAR race by now,” Earnhardt said.

Kingston has brushed off the criticism. “If I was receiving millions of dollars from the federal government I would defend the program vigorously as well,” he told The Hill on Friday.

The military says that the NASCAR and other sports sponsorships are an important way to build up their brands and that they do in fact attract recruits.

Army National Guard Director Lt. Gen. William Ingram Jr. told a Senate panel at a hearing last month that that the sponsorships were effective, comparing the Guard to Tide laundry detergent sponsoring NASCAR.

“The Army National Guard, because of the target audience that we’re looking at for our band of recruits, that is an interest to those people,” Ingram said. “When they watch sports on television, they see the Army National Guard. It’s a national branding opportunity that is of great value.”

The Defense appropriations bill is expected to head to the House floor when Congress returns from the July 4 recess. It will still include the NASCAR provisions, but McKeon will be able now to move to strip them from the bill on procedural grounds.

McKeon, in a letter to Rules Committee Chairman David Dreier (R-Calif.), argued that the NASCAR sponsorship measure violated his committee’s jurisdiction as the Pentagon’s authorizing committee because it instructed the Pentagon to use the money for other recruiting means.

McCollum told The Hill that she and Kingston are working with the Appropriations Committee heads to re-write the language so the amendment can be offered again on the House floor. They are likely to change the provision so the $80 million is cut and goes to deficit reduction.

If the measure gets a roll-call vote on the floor, it’s unlikely to fall along partisan lines.

Kingston told The Hill that he can attract fiscal conservative Republicans along with McCollum’s Democratic support, but there are members of both parties also opposed. Last year, McCollum’s amendment failed 148-281, with 209 Republicans and 72 Democrats voting no, and 30 Republicans and 118 Democrats supporting it.

McKeon is confident the House will vote it down again this year. 

“Recruiting through sporting activity, including NASCAR, has a long history of bi-partisan support and the chairman is confident the House will maintain that support when the issue is debated again this year,” McKeon spokesman Claude Chafin said in an e-mail.

But some defense-minded lawmakers who voted against the measure last year say they are now reconsidering. Defense Appropriations subcommittee ranking member Norm Dicks (D-Wash.) said at the Rules hearing he had been persuaded, for instance.

“At first I was concerned about it, but the more I’ve gotten into the details the more comfortable I feel that this is some area we can make some cuts,” Dicks said. “If this is truly wasteful and it’s not working, then we should stop.”

House Armed Services ranking member Adam Smith (D-Wash.) said he hasn’t figured out where he stands yet.

“I would be reluctant to restrict them, but we have to look at ways to make sure they spend the money wisely on advertising,” Smith said. “I am concerned if we’re doing ads on questionable things, like violent video games.”

When asked about the likelihood that the amendment would pass this year, Kingston said he gave it a “50-50 chance.”