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Earmark Competition Signals Modest Savings in Defense March 29, 2010

Posted by Matthew Leatherman in Analysis.
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by Mariah Quinn and Matt Leatherman

February budget releases and November elections always provide a neat playing field for members of Congress to fight over earmark reform.  House Democrats kicked off this year’s competition on March 10th, announcing a moratorium in FY2011 on earmarks dolled out to for-profit organizations.  House Republicans raised the stakes a day later by vowing to indulge no member-submitted earmarks of any type for FY11.

If you’re getting a sense of earmark déjà vu all over again, no need to check in with Yogi Berra – the feeling is real.  In 2007, the House voted to require that lawmakers reveal the size and purpose of their enacted earmarks.  The current Congress then tightened the rules to include un-enacted requests and extended this process to both chambers.

Neither of these efforts aimed directly at reducing spending driven by earmarks, but instead approached that issue indirectly by increasing transparency.  House Democrats set spending concerns further aside this year, limiting the pool of earmark recipients instead of the earmark process itself.  Announcing this policy, Appropriations Committee Chairman David Obey (WI) and Defense subcommittee Chairman Norman Dicks (WA) emphasized that it will “provide an opportunity for businesses – especially small start-up companies with no inside Pentagon connections – to present their good ideas and products to the Defense Department.”  Neglected in this position, however, is an acknowledgment that these firms will be competing for work that the Department of Defense did not request and, by extension, does not need or want.

The surprise this year, though, is in the comprehensiveness of House Republicans’ ban.  Unlike the Administration’s exemption of defense spending from the FY11 budget freeze, House Republicans are including defense and military construction appropriations in their vow.  According to a recent memo from the House Armed Services Committee’s minority staff, Ranking Member Buck McKeon (CA) has encouraged HASC Republicans to submit a one line letter to the committee, which reads: “Pursuant to adoption of the House Republican Conference Resolution on March 11, 2010, I respectfully withdraw all of my previous member requests from committee consideration for the FY 2011 National Defense Authorization Act.”

House Republicans could generate meaningful savings if they are able to enforce this position throughout the appropriations process.  The FY10 defense bill was weighed down by $9.6 billion in earmarks (25% of the $37.8B earmark total), of which $1.02 billion was sponsored in the House exclusively by the Republican Conference.  Military construction also garnered a significant chunk, receiving $14.5 billion overall (38% of the total) and $492 million from House Republicans.  (Data from Taxpayers for Common Sense’s database on earmarks.)  These numbers are an imprecise measure of the ban’s impact – recall that all earmarks were also approved by the Senate, which has no such ban – but defense savings in the order of hundreds of millions of dollars would be valuable, if not spectacular relative to the $693 billion top line in FY10.

Achieving something spectacular would have required House Republicans to include in their ban earmarks categorized as “committee level national security policy decisions.”  Though still of comparatively little overall expense, these decisions are highly symbolic due to the wrench they throw into the defense budget request.  Specifically cited as exempt from the earmark ban are requests for the Joint Strike Fighter alternative engine and additional C-17 procurements – both items pointedly excluded from the budget by Secretary Gates.

Between House Democrat’s fixation on the earmark eligibility pool and House Republican’s exemption of “committee level policy decisions,” this year’s fight over earmark reform regrettably returns to the default scorecard – which party most responsibly purchases those things that the Defense Department doesn’t want.  Banning member requests gives House Republicans the edge in this game.  Better yet that we didn’t play it at all.

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