Beware of Legislators Bearing Gifts

By Robert Moore

It’s that time of the political season again when all members of Congress and one-third of the Senate take to various media outlets to extol the fruits of their most recent term in Washington and ask their constituents to return them for another round. Even the safest incumbents will make sure their websites and local news outlets stay up-to-date with their legislative activities, and the tightest challenges will get national attention.

Yet for rank-and-file members of Congress, scoring major legislative victories is difficult unless they are part of their party leadership or the chair of a committee. Such members must rely on leadership to insert their priorities into the massive spending bills that largely make up the bulk of consequential legislation passed in this era.

A prime example of this is the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) which has been passed annually for over half a century. The NDAA is the summation of the work done by the House and Senate Armed Services Committees every year, authorizing the spending levels and policies for the Pentagon. Members of the committees take pride in passing legislation that is signed into law every year, and claim that it is the duty of Congress to service-members to always get this bill across the finish line.

Because the NDAA is a “must pass” initiative dealing with national security, getting language into the bill that benefits a member’s district or state is a high priority for most offices. And thus the vehicle used to give troops a pay raise and ensure they are adequately trained becomes one of the most pork-laden and parochial bills in Congress.

An ongoing instance of this involves the M1/A1 Abrams tank, which is made at a joint Army/General Dynamics factory in Lima, Ohio. For years, the Army insisted that it did not need more tanks, and as defense budgets started to tighten during the Obama administration, new tank purchases were some of the first items on the chopping block. Yet they continued to be funded by Congress—to the satisfaction of then-Speaker and Ohio-delegation member John Boehner and thousands in Ohio who work in the towns and factories.

Of course, ‘pork-barrel’ spending is nothing new to Congress, and bringing home federal funding to local constituents is as old as legislating. While it should all be concerning, the American people should particularly be wary of spending brought in by members of Congress in the name of national security.

Yes, the planes, guns, and ammunition need to be manufactured somewhere and the military must have domestic installations in which to train and store their materials. But Congressional meddling in those decisions to secure re-election is practically an open invitation for waste and unnecessary spending.

Further, with a little imagination and rhetorical ingenuity, almost anything can be categorized as “national security.”

After trying to argue the case to the Army itself that it needed new tanks, supporters of the Abrams contended that the manufacturing lines needed to be kept in operation in case the Army needed them at any point in the future. Under such logic, virtually any government spending could be justified in perpetuity.

Today, one needs to look no further than the military’s largest procurement item, the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, to see this system in action. The F-35 has manufacturers and subcontractors spread across the country and the jet will eventually be deployed coast to coast. That’s why it would be difficult to stroll through Capitol Hill and not slip on a press memo from a Congressional office announcing the member’s strong support for the NDAA’s spending package for more F-35s and the need for rapid purchases to address “dire” national security threats. All this, despite years of concerns about the F-35’s cost, development, and capabilities.

In the coming weeks, numerous tributes will be made to the late-Senator John McCain, former presidential candidate and Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee. We should demand that our representatives follow Sen. McCain’s example as a champion against earmarking and other forms of parochial spending, even when it came to funding that would benefit his state. Two years ago, McCain rightfully called the F-35’s spiraling cost and delayed schedule “disgraceful” and said the program "has been both a scandal and a tragedy with respect to cost, schedule and performance."

At the same time, we should also seek credibility and accountability in the national security threat assessments being promulgated by politicians in the midst of reelection campaigns.

If Sen. McCain’s legacy is to be the battle against corrosive cynicism, these would be good places to start.

Robert Moore is a public policy advisor at Defense Priorities. Having spent nearly a decade working defense and foreign policy issues on Capitol Hill, Robert has extensive knowledge of, and experience with, the policy-making process, including how Congress shapes U.S. national security. He most recently served as the lead staffer for Sen. Mike Lee on the Senate Armed Services Committee. He also advised Sen. Lee on matters of foreign relations, intelligence, homeland security, and veterans affairs. He previously worked as part of Sen. Jim DeMint's national security team.

This piece was originally published by The Hill on September 4, 2018. Read more HERE.