Congress must stop soft ‘earmarking’ in Pentagon spending bill

Sometime on Sunday the House Appropriations Committee released its “Chairman’s Mark” of the Fiscal Year 2018 spending bill for the Pentagon. And late Monday night the Defense subcommittee met in closed session to produce the opening salvo in the Pentagon spending battle. The big news – and the most pitched fighting – surround the top line spending level. But there’s a lot of parochial interest rooted in, ah yes, the weeds.

At TCS we read the bill so you don’t have to, and we find that too often, lawmakers like to treat defense spending as a jobs program, using it to protect various sectors of the American manufacturing economy.


Below you will find the sections of the bill that Congress uses to keep the Pentagon from finding the best value on certain types of military supplies, reorganizing military commands, ending missions the military no longer believes are viable, and, of course closing any unnecessary military bases.

For example: SEC. 8016. None of the funds in this Act may be available for the purchase by the Department of Defense (and its departments and agencies) of welded shipboard anchor and mooring chain 4 inches in diameter and under unless the anchor and mooring chain are manufactured in the United States from components which are substantially manufactured in the United States…”

All of the provisions start with some form of “None of the funds in this Act” because spending bills are not supposed to set policy. Lawmakers back into policy by limiting government’s ability to spend on things or activities, in this case buying chain from anywhere but the U.S. And since appropriations bills only last for a year, these parochial and protectionist provisions have to appear every single year to have effect. The late Rep. Helen Bentley (R-Md.) championed this provision, which first appeared in the FY1989 bill. Two years ago Appropriations Committee member Patty MurrayPatricia (Patty) Lynn MurrayOvernight Health Care: Trump becomes first sitting president to attend March for Life | Officials confirm second US case of coronavirus | Trump officials threaten California funding over abortion law Top health officials brief senators on coronavirus as infections spread Administration to give Senate briefing on coronavirus MORE (D-Wash.) got it expanded to include U.S. Army Corps of Engineers vessels as well. Murray and Rep. Suzan DelBeneSuzan Kay DelBeneCongressional authority in a time of Trump executive overreach Moderate Democratic lawmakers back privacy bill favored by businesses The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by National Association of Manufacturers - Trump, Congress draw battle lines on impeachment MORE (D-Wash.) even asked the Government Accountability Office (GAO) if the Corps of Engineers had violated the relatively new provision. Nope, but only because the Corps used earlier funds from FY2015.

Moving along, Sec. 8024 restricts the Pentagon from using carbon, alloy, or armor steel plate that wasn’t  “melted and rolled in the United States or Canada…” You can thank former powerhouse lawmakers of the Pennsylvania delegation for getting this prohibition in the Pentagon bill many years ago. Even after they are gone, the protectionist provision persists. Sec. 8045 gives ball and roller bearings the same treatment, except Canada is cut out of the action.

Unlike restrictions keeping all supercomputer acquisition domestic (Sec. 8048), there are no legitimate security concerns for these provisions.

But it doesn’t stop at protectionism, lawmakers also get parochial. Sec. 8074 prohibits the Pentagon from spending any money “to reduce or disestablish the operation of the 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron of the Air Force Reserve…” I’m sure it’s just coincidence that Keesler Air Force Base (where the 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron is stationed) happens to be in the district of House Appropriations Committee member Steven Palazzo (R-Miss.). The Army Contracting Command—New Jersey at Picatinny Arsenal gets similar protection in Sec. 8080. Its patron? Appropriations Committee Chairman Rodney FrelinghuysenRodney Procter FrelinghuysenThe 31 Trump districts that will determine the next House majority Top House GOP appropriations staffer moves to lobbying shop Individuals with significant disabilities need hope and action MORE (R-N.J.). And just to cover their bases (pun intended), lawmakers tossed in Sec. 8113 that prohibits the Pentagon from spending money “propose, plan for, or execute a new or additional Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) round.” In other words, don’t even think about base closure! (Side note: In a rare tag-team, the Trump administration followed the Obama administration and dared propose a round of base closure. Congress does not appear amused.)

There is one glimmer of hope. After seeing it cut on the House floor each of the last two years, the committee did not include the requirement that the Pentagon ship coal from Pennsylvania to Germany to power several U.S. military installations. This is good. There’s a reason we gave that one a Golden Fleece in 2015.

Bottom line: The Pentagon budget should never be used as a jobs program. This type of soft “earmarking” to benefit certain U.S. industries must stop. These protectionist provisions are not about security. They are about doing favors for friends or campaign contributors. It’s the worst type of crony-capitalism.

Ryan Alexander is president of Taxpayers for Common Sense. She testifies regularly in Congress on a wide range of topics relating to federal spending, subsidies, and fiscal policy. 

The views expressed by this author are their own and are not the views of The Hill.