Parade of Parochialism

FY18 Pentagon spending billParade of ParochialismWith the flick of a pen, the high priorities of powerful Members of Congress are funded.

National Security  | Research & Analysis
Dec 12, 2017  | 6 min read | Print Article

On November 21st, the Senate Appropriations Committee released the “Chairman’s Mark” of the Fiscal Year 2018 (FY18) Pentagon spending bill.

For all you traditionalists out there, let’s take a moment to point out the sad state of affairs that is the Congressional legislative process these days. The current fiscal year began on October 1st.

(Pause, while everyone checks their smart phones for today’s date.)

Yes, this is now the beginning of December. The Pentagon, and the rest of the federal government, have been operating under a Continuing Resolution that keeps programs funded at last year’s levels.

Okay, that moment has passed and we are where we are: it’s two weeks and change to Christmas and the Senate Appropriations Committee is just now taking up the Pentagon spending bill for a fiscal year that is two months old.

As we budget nerds at Taxpayers have for the last 20-plus years, we printed out the bill and report and started reading. Old-fashioned? Yes, but it works for us. The first thing we did was produce our “Lobbyists Give Thanks” chart that shows every procurement or research and development program that the Senate Appropriators funded where the Pentagon requested zero dollars. We would never say the Pentagon always knows best, but we will say that if the Pentagon didn’t ask for a program in a budget request of between $500 and $600 billion, well, probably it isn’t a very high priority.

Typically these programs that go from zero to funded in the flick of a pen are the high priorities of a powerful Member of Congress who has a certain contractor or military facility in their district or state. But the $6.8 billion of your tax dollars being given to the Pentagon to buy things it doesn’t want is just the beginning of this parade of parochialism.

As happens each year, the Senate has a series of requirements that the Pentagon buy certain items or materials only from a U.S. source. This year’s list includes:

  • Carbon, alloy, or armor steel plate
  • Supercomputers
  • Public vessels
  • Ball and roller bearings
  • Food
  • Clothing or textile materials

And, specific to the TAO-205 oiler and T-ATS salvage shipbuilding programs the following components must be manufactured in the United States:

  • Auxiliary equipment (including pumps) for shipboard services
  • Propulsion equipment (including engines, reduction gears, and propellers)
  • Shipboard cranes
  • Spreaders for shipboard cranes
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We’ve said it before and we’ll keep on saying it: the Pentagon and the troops who keep us all safe by serving in the military deserve the best equipment, no matter where it is manufactured.

Congress continually putting its thumb on the scale in favor of goods manufactured in the United States doesn’t make our military service members or us safer. But it almost certainly makes everything more expensive.

Unfortunately, this practice is becoming more common. In recent years Members of Congress have made moves to require running shoes and stainless steel flatware for the Pentagon to come from entirely U.S. sources.

Sometimes these ridiculous attempts are successful and sometimes they aren’t.

But it’s clear they’ve become a new form of backdoor earmarking. In the case of running shoes and flatware, the requirement for American sourcing of the product effectively meant only one manufacturer would qualify for the contract. And that, friends, is earmarking by another name.

If they can’t get an outright ban on procuring an item from foreign sources, Members of Congress ask for a Pentagon “study” on the issue. See the Navy and its classic peacoat this year, and the Army and Lightweight Segmented Tactical Ladders of a few years ago.

So it makes us nervous to see Section 8037 in the bill language. This section states the Department of Defense must comply with the “Buy American Act.” But it also has the following “Sense of the Congress” (non-binding) language:

“any entity of the Department of Defense, in expending the appropriation, purchase only American-made equipment and products, provided that American-made equipment and products are cost-competitive, quality competitive, and available in a timely fashion.”

— Section 8037

Although we appreciate the nod to competition, we fear we are teetering at the apex of a slippery slope toward a requirement that everything the Pentagon buys be produced in the United States.

Finally, the Senate bill includes language prohibiting the Air Force from using money to “reduce or disestablish the operation of the 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron.” Anyone care to guess where the 53rd is based? Anyone? Here’s a clue: the Chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee is the venerable Thad Cochran.

And for those of you who guessed that the 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron is based in Mississippi, we have a wooden nickel from a 100 percent American hardwood tree.