Washington Sketch: Defense spending bill is exercise in waste on want-not

By Dana Milbank
Thursday, October 29, 2009

Not quite three weeks ago, President Obama won the Nobel Peace Prize. On Wednesday afternoon, he put his signature on the largest military spending plan in the history of the world.

Such is the plight of an agent of change in the city of stasis.

Months ago, Obama and his defense secretary, Robert Gates, outlined a bold overhaul of the Pentagon's weaponry -- and they succeeded in killing off the F-22 fighter and a costly new presidential helicopter. But defense contractors and their agents in Congress defied a veto threat and forced Obama to accept new engines for the F-35 fighter and lots of other things the military says it doesn't want or need.

Obama swallowed his veto threat and, in the East Room on Wednesday, signed the National Defense Authorization Act -- at $680 billion, the largest ever of its kind in current dollars. "We have passed a defense bill that eliminates some of the waste and inefficiency in our defense process," the president said, emphasizing the "some" and vowing that "it's just a first step" toward his goal. "I'm pleased to say that we have proved that change is possible. It may not come quickly or all at once, but if you push hard enough, it does come eventually."

But will it come soon enough? In the case of the defense bill, Obama certainly deserves credit for trying -- and for making gradual progress. The problem is that progress is more gradual than his lofty campaign speeches led voters to believe, and they are becoming increasingly disenchanted.

A Wall Street Journal-NBC News poll found trust in government at a 12-year low, half of all Americans favoring the creation of a new political party and only 38 percent giving Obama high marks for "changing business as usual in Washington," down from 47 percent in April. "We have work to do," White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said when asked about the survey at Wednesday's briefing.

The defense bill shows the expectations problem. Conservative critics alleged (and some of Obama's supporters hoped) that he would cut defense spending. But he continued the huge military buildup of the Bush years. The $680 billion bill that the president signed includes war funding for Iraq and Afghanistan -- President George W. Bush had used an accounting gimmick to tally that money separately -- but even the "base" Pentagon budget is larger.

"In real terms, it's larger than at the height of the Reagan buildup," argued Lawrence Korb of the liberal Center for American Progress. If Obama is forced to request more funding for Afghanistan, the overall spending for fiscal 2010 could eclipse the biggest of the Bush years.

Andrew Krepinevich of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments called it "the high-water mark" in a military spending buildup that is likely to come under more budget pressure in coming years.

The details are more problematic than the size. Congress and military contractors already forced Obama to accept $560 million for the new engine that the Pentagon doesn't want for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. The defense appropriations bill, the next step in the spending process, is expected to make him accept $2.5 billion for 10 new C-17 cargo jets he doesn't want, and $1.7 billion for another DDG-51 destroyer he doesn't need.

Also, the defense spending bills mock Obama's campaign pledge to "slash earmarks." According to Taxpayers for Common Sense, the Senate version of the legislation has 778 earmarks for lawmakers' pet projects, worth $2.65 billion. The House version has 1,080 earmarks, worth $2.66 billion. Both come at the expense of money for ammunition and training for troops.

The long wait for change isn't limited to the Pentagon. White House officials awoke Wednesday to a report in the Washington Times, based on Democratic National Committee documents, showing that Obama had rewarded donors with policy briefings, holiday receptions, golf and bowling. It wasn't quite in the league of Bill Clinton's Lincoln Bedroom sleepovers, but the story didn't fit well with Obama's promise to reform the way business is done in Washington.

"Does the president believe that allowing donors to visit the White House," Gibbs was asked at his briefing, "is in the spirit of what he was talking about during the campaign?"

"Giving a contribution to the DNC doesn't guarantee you a visit here," was his less-than-adequate reply.

When Gates and Obama took their places on the stage in the East Room a couple of hours later, they urged patience in the pursuit of change. "This bill and this budget are just the beginning," the defense secretary promised. "The Pentagon is not the kind of place that can turn on a dime."

Obama, up next, picked up the theme. "Changing the culture in Washington will take time and sustained effort," he said. But, he added, "when Secretary Gates and I first proposed going after some of these wasteful projects, there were a lot of people in this town who . . . were certain that we would get steamrolled, who argued that the special interests were too entrenched and that Washington was simply too set in its ways. And so I think it's important to note today we have proven them wrong."

Not yet, Mr. President. But keep trying.

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