By R. Jeffrey Smith and Ellen Nakashima
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, March 8, 2009
When President Obama promised Wednesday to attack defense spending that he considers wasteful and inefficient, he opened a fight with key lawmakers from his own party.
It was Democrats who stuffed an estimated $524 million in defense earmarks that the Pentagon did not request into the 2008 appropriations bill, about $220 million more than Republicans did, according to an independent estimate. Of the 44 senators who implored Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates in January to build more F-22 Raptors -- a fighter conceived during the Cold War that senior Pentagon officials say is not suited to probable 21st-century conflicts -- most were Democrats.
And last July, when the Navy's top brass decided to end production of their newest class of destroyers -- in response to 15 classified intelligence reports highlighting their vulnerability to a range of foreign missiles -- seven Democratic senators quickly joined four Republicans to demand a reversal. They threatened to cut all funding for surface combat ships in 2009.
Within a month, Gates and the Navy reversed course and endorsed production of a third DDG-1000 destroyer, at a cost of $2.7 billion.
"Too many contractors have been allowed to get away with delay after delay in developing unproven weapon systems," Obama said, attributing $295 billion in cost overruns to "influence peddling" and "a lack of oversight" that produces weapons meant "to make a defense contractor rich" instead of securing the nation.
He did not mention that since 2006, Democratic lawmakers have presided over a 10 percent increase in the Pentagon's budget -- it now amounts to 46 percent of the government's total discretionary spending -- and have also voted repeatedly to keep funding weapons systems that have had hundreds of billions of dollars in cost overruns.
Although Obama complimented one Democratic and one Republican senator who last month proposed revisions, senior Pentagon officials predict that gaining support on Capitol Hill for ending procurement abuses will be an uphill battle.
"There is equal blame to go around," a senior defense official said Friday, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of political sensitivities. "It's bipartisan. It's all about political expediency."
He added that Gates, who has lately been urging both the Pentagon and Congress to set aside parochial interests in setting budget priorities, is "not naive" -- he expects only to improve the process, not to perfect it. Gates is "willing to use the capital he has built up" if necessary, the official said.
But a spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) defended the Democrats' record on defense spending. "This kind of spending can play an important role in our ongoing effort to improve critical national defense programs," Jim Manley said.
Independent experts say the obstacles to radical change in defense procurement are all familiar: Close ties between contractors and the military services help ensure that waste and inefficiency are unpunished. Lawmakers seeking home-state jobs and a steady flow of campaign contributions have every incentive to keep funding programs that Pentagon officials say they do not need, particularly in an economic downturn.
"A lot of these weapon systems that are big-ticket items now have no purpose," said William Hartung, director of the Arms and Security Initiative at the New America Foundation, a Washington think tank. "The Taliban doesn't have an air force. China and Russia are at least a generation behind us. So at a time when we're talking about developing unmanned aerial vehicles and want to increase our special forces, we ought to be making a clean sweep of these systems that were built during the Cold War."
The problem, he added, is that the defense industry, now dominated by a handful of large firms with offices or subcontractors in key congressional districts, plays the political game extremely well.
Tens of thousands of jobs directly related to the F-22, for example, are spread among 44 states, a point emphasized in a letter of support for the program signed by 194 House members on Jan. 21. The fighter was conceived in the mid-1980s, and even though Gates said last year its production should end at a fleet of 183, a bipartisan group of lawmakers appropriated $523 million as a down payment on parts to build 20 more in 2010.
"The F-22 decision is an important national security decision with ramifications for the next 30 years," said Jeff Adams, a spokesman for Bethesda-based Lockheed Martin, its manufacturer, noting that the Air Force still says it needs more planes.
Each aircraft now costs about $145 million, and senior defense officials note that the plane has not been used in the Iraq or Afghanistan wars. Although the F-22 is built as an air-superiority fighter, the U.S. military has not faced a serious dogfight threat since the Vietnam War, one of the officials said. The signatories to the Jan. 16 Senate letter supporting the additional planes included Vice President Biden, then still a Democratic senator from Delaware, Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), Patty Murray (D-Wash.), Christopher J. Dodd (D-Conn.), Barbara A. Mikulski (D-Md.), Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.).
"The thing about weapons and bases is they are backyard issues for members of Congress," said Gordon Adams, a professor at American University who formerly served as associate director for national security and international affairs for the Office of Management and Budget. "It's not like foreign aid. It's about contracts in my district, contributors to my election campaign, things that directly affect my prospects of staying in office and my ability to say to my constituents, 'I got one for you!' That's the heart of a weapons decision."
Since Democrats took control of the defense appropriations process in 2006, the defense industry has shifted gears: During the 2008 election cycle, more than half of the industry's estimated campaign donations of $25.4 million went to Democrats, marking the first time in 14 years the party had come out on top, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonprofit group that monitors campaign spending.
The impact of the shift was pronounced in the two committees that control military spending in the House, where Democrats collected 63 and 66 percent, respectively, of all defense industry funds given to committee members in that cycle. The champion was defense appropriations subcommittee Chairman John P. Murtha (D-Pa.), who collected $743,275 of the industry's money; second place was held by Armed Services Committee Chairman Ike Skelton (D-Mo.), who collected $268,799, according to the center's tally.
Murtha added more than $100 million in earmarks to the fiscal 2008 defense bill, nearly a fifth of the total inserted by all Democrats, according to the watchdog group Taxpayers for Common Sense. Every earmark reflects a project that the Pentagon did not seek in its budget request, and some of Murtha's earmarks benefited clients of a lobbying firm called PMA Group, now under FBI investigation for possible violations of federal election law. PMA is run by a former Murtha aide, and some of its clients were donors to Murtha campaigns.
"We receive thousands of requests for funding each year, all of which are fully vetted and approved by the committee and the House," said Murtha spokesman Matthew Mazonkey. "In the end, we recommend funding only those programs that have the most value and merit to the Defense Department." Some, he added, have produced innovations that brought eventual cost savings.
Murtha also joined other Democrats -- including Boxer -- in adding billions of dollars to the war budget for 15 Boeing C-17 cargo planes that the Pentagon did not request. "We have said we have enough" of the C-17s, the senior defense official said. "But members keep adding them to every spending bill, every opportunity they can find." Taxpayers for Common Sense calls the persistent funding "a gift to Boeing." Boeing spokesman Douglas J. Kennett says that the program's cancellation would cost "over 30,000 jobs with over 600 aerospace suppliers."
Reid is no match for Murtha, but he still managed to sponsor or co-sponsor $68 million in unrequested defense earmarks in the 2008 bill, financing the development of a "truck-deployed explosive containment vehicle," an "integrated imagery network" for the Nevada National Guard, an Army flatbed trailer, Nevada anti-drug operations, an Air Force diesel air quality project, and a propellant agent for "slurry gel" used by the Army.
Three of Reid's Democratic colleagues -- Kennedy, Patrick J. Leahy (Vt.) and Evan Bayh (Ind.) -- also helped add almost a billion dollars to the Pentagon budget over the past two years for continued production of an alternate engine for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, though the Pentagon said in 2007 that the engine is unnecessary. The plane is already $55 billion over its budgeted cost, according to the Government Accountability Office. The engine is being developed and built by General Electric and Rolls Royce in Massachusetts, Vermont, Indiana and other states; its production team says the engine will offer more flexibility for the fighter pilots if it is installed.
Kennedy also joined Sens. John F. Kerry (Mass.), James Webb (Va.), Herb Kohl (Wis.) and other Democrats in demanding funding for the third, unwanted DDG-1000 Navy destroyer. "The world has changed markedly since we began the march to DDG-1000 in the early 1990s," Adm. Gary Roughead, chief of naval operations, said in January, explaining why he sought to cancel the ship in favor of building more of a smaller, cheaper and older alternative vessel.
Intelligence reports have warned that the ship will be unable to fend off missile threats, including an advanced missile being developed by China and simple ones already possessed by Hezbollah. As a result, the Navy agreed to end production of the hard-to-hide 14,000-ton vessels, capping the program at two ships instead of seven.
A Kennedy aide said of the senators' joint letter to the Pentagon that "we'd like to think that it played a big role in changing their mind." He confirmed that Raytheon, which makes the destroyer's electronic components in Massachusetts, had contacted Kennedy's office about keeping the ship in production. But, he added, "we don't do Raytheon's bidding."
A Navy spokesman said Friday that the service still considers the DDG-1000 "a ship you don't need."