By R. Jeffrey Smith
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 29, 2009
Sen. Thad Cochran's most recent reelection campaign collected more than $10,000 from University of Southern Mississippi professors and staff members, including three who work at the school's center for research on polymers. To a defense spending bill slated to be on the Senate floor Tuesday, the Mississippi Republican has added $10.8 million in military grants earmarked for the school's polymer research.
Cochran, the ranking Republican on the Appropriations subcommittee on defense, also added $12 million in earmarked spending for Raytheon Corp., whose officials have contributed $10,000 to his campaign since 2007. He earmarked nearly $6 million in military funding for Circadence Corp., whose officers -- including a former Cochran campaign aide -- contributed $10,000 in the same period.
In total, the spending bill for 2010 includes $132 million for Cochran's campaign donors, helping to make him the sponsor of more earmarked military spending than any other senator this year, according to an analysis by the nonprofit group Taxpayers for Common Sense.
Cochran says his proposals are based only on "national security interests," not campaign cash. But in providing money for projects that the Defense Department says it did not request and does not want, he has joined a host of other senators on both sides of the aisle. The proposed $636 billion Senate bill includes $2.65 billion in earmarks.
President Obama has repeatedly promised to fight "the special interests, contractors and entrenched lobbyists" that he says have distorted military priorities and bloated appropriations in the past. In August, he told a convention of the Veterans of Foreign Wars that "if Congress sends me a defense bill loaded with a bunch of pork, I will veto it."
But the White House instead sent a generally supportive message to the Senate about the pending defense bill on Friday, virtually ensuring that the earmarks will win final congressional approval. For the most part, the White House lauded the bill's proposed funding for the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as its cancellation of three programs that Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates has been particularly eager to kill this year: the F-22 fighter plane, a second engine for the F-35 fighter and a new presidential helicopter program.
The bill, however, would add $1.7 billion for an extra destroyer the Defense Department did not request and $2.5 billion for 10 C-17 cargo planes it did not want, at the behest of lawmakers representing the states where those items would be built. Although the White House said the administration "strongly objects" to the extra C-17s and to the Senate's proposed shift of more than $3 billion from operations and maintenance accounts to projects the Pentagon did not request, no veto was threatened over those provisions.
The absence of such a threat provoked Winslow Wheeler, director of a military reform project at the Center for Defense Information, to describe Obama's stance as "too wimpy to impact behavior." Wheeler, who earlier criticized the House for approving a version of the bill that includes extra C-17 planes, $2.7 billion worth of earmarks and other projects that Gates dislikes, said that "as a long-time Senate staffer who has read these documents for years, my interpretation of it is that the House-Senate conference will listen politely . . . and then do as it pleases."
Senior Obama aides responded that the White House never sought to fix the problem of earmarks in one year. "The president has been clear from Day One: He wants to change the way business gets done in Washington," Thomas Gavin, a spokesman for the Office of Management and Budget, said Monday. "The results speak for themselves. Earmarks in the defense appropriations bills are down 27 percent in the House and 19 percent in the Senate. This is an important step forward in the president's drive to shape a government that is more efficient and more effective."
Those figures are the most flattering the White House could have used: They refer to the number of earmarks in the bills, not total spending. Total spending on military earmarks in the Senate declined by only 11 percent from the $3 billion approved by Congress last year.
"Despite the fact that earmarks are down, there's still nearly 800 . . . for projects that rose to the top by dint of political power rather than project merit," said Ryan Alexander, president of Taxpayers for Common Sense. "The president needs to take a harder line against waste and political gamesmanship, particularly in the defense bill, which is paying for two wars."
There is, however, wide bipartisan support in Congress for diverting funds to political donors or home-state causes.
Sen. Daniel K. Inouye (D-Hawaii), chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, ran a close second to Cochran's $212 million in earmarks this year, having added 37 earmarks of his own worth $208 million, according to the tally by Taxpayers for Common Sense.
Almost all of Inouye's earmarks are for programs in his home state, and 18 of the provisions -- totaling $68 million -- are for entities that have donated $340,000 to his campaign since 2007. His earmarks included $24 million for a Hawaiian health-care network, $20 million for Boeing's operation of the Maui Space Surveillance System and $20 million for a civic education center named after the late senator Edward M. Kennedy.
"Many of my earmarks are intended to support investment in small businesses working to hone new and innovative technologies that will better protect and support our soldiers during a time when our nation is at war," Inouye said in a statement Monday.
In Cochran's case, the proposed earmarks would benefit at least two entities that hired his former aides. The manager of Mississippi operations for Colorado-based Circadence is R. Bradley Prewitt, whose biography on the company's Web site states that he was counsel and campaign manager to Cochran from 1997 to 2002. The University of Southern Mississippi, which would receive $10.8 million in Cochran earmarks, paid $40,000 to a firm that employs Cochran's former legislative director, James Lofton, to help lobby on defense appropriations, according to the firm's Senate registration.
"Senator Cochran takes his responsibilities on the Appropriations Committee very seriously," spokesman Chris Gallegos responded Monday. "Senator Cochran does not, and never will, base his decisions on campaign contributions."
Staff researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.