This column was written by John Nichols.
In a Congress where it has become fashionable to gripe about earmarks of a few hundred thousand dollars to pay for small-town museums and urban parks — and, until last week, for construction and repair of bridges — the most expensive waste and corruption is always contained in the annual Department of Defense appropriation. Nowhere in the whole of the budgetary blueprint for allocating tax dollars could a serious observer of federal programs find more bloat, inefficiency, hidden excess and overt overspending that in the Defense plan.
Yet, while members in both parties preach from their bully pulpits about the need to do away with earmarks, the House with virtually no debate on Sunday approved $459.6 billion in new money for the Pentagon. You want earmarks? "This bill has more than 1,300 earmarks. The notion that these had proper review is simply not reasonable," said Arizona Congressman Jeff Flake, an Arizona Republican who gave a good speech but still joined the overwhelming majority of House members in voting for every one of those earmarks — and the rest of the $459.6 billion in spending.
Of course, that amount does not include the extra $147 billion in Iraq war funding that the Bush administration has demanded that Congress approve when the Congress returns from its August recess.
Nor does it include the include the various and sundry additional requests to cover nuclear weapons costs, international FBI expenses, the rising demands of the General Services Administration's National Defense Stockpile and Selective Services requirements. Add on debt costs attributable to defense spending and, according to authoritative Center for Defense Information estimates, U.S. taxpayers will dole out at least $878 billion to cover military costs in 2008.
As CDI notes, the final total "will probably be even more."
The key word there is "probably," because even the most skilled analysts can never place a precise figure on what the Pentagon is or will be spending.
What is certain is the fact — confirmed by conservative and liberal analysts — that the bloated defense budget contains waste on a scale unimaginable to even the most ardent earmarkers.
So why was there no serious debate on the Pentagon budget? It's not just that the Bush administration and its Republican allies in Congress continue to use the war on terror as an excuse to enrich defense contractors such as Dick Cheney's Halliburton. As Winslow Wheeler, a veteran of 31 years working with mostly Republican senators on defense issues and a former assistant director of evaluations of national defense programs with the U.S. Government Accountability Office, "Now in control of Congress and having made multiple promises to restore oversight of the war in Iraq and the executive branch in general, the Democrats have been successfully rolled by the White House, the military services, and the big spender pundits."
Adds Wheeler, who now directs CDI's Straus Military Reform Project, "Knowing a patsy when they see one, the defense contractors are now piling on…" And they are getting a lot more "free money" than any of the communities across the U.S. that hope for a tiny earmark here or there to pay for a new bike path or a polka museum.
So how many members of the House refused to get rolled? Not many. The final vote on the Pentagon appropriation for the 2008 fiscal year was 395-13. The "no" votes came from: California's Bob Filner, Barbara Lee and Lynn Woolsey, Georgia's John Lewis, Massachusetts' Barney Frank, Minnesota's Keith Ellison, New York's Nydia Velázquez, Oregon's Earl Blumenauer; New Jersey's Donald Payne, Ohio's Dennis Kucinich, Washington's Jim McDermott and Wisconsin's Tammy Baldwin — all Democrats — and a single Republican "fiscal conservative": Michigan's Vernon Ehlers.
Twenty-four additional members, 14 Republicans and 10 Democrats, did not vote. Two Republican presidential candidates were among their number: Texan Ron Paul and Colorado's Tom Tancredo.
Kucinich, it should be noted, is running for the Democratic presidential nomination.
So far, he is the only contender for the presidency to actually come out against the most excessive and irresponsible spending in the federal budget.
Other presidential candidates — Democrats Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, Chris Dodd an Joe Biden and Republicans John McCain and Sam Brownback — will have a chance to vote on the Pentagon spending bill after the August recess.
How they vote will tell Americans everything that needs to be known about who is "fiscally responsible" and who is not.
By John Nichols
Reprinted with permission from The Nation