Last Thursday, the House of Representatives approved a $612 billion budget for military spending for next year. It busted spending caps Congress set for itself by $38 billion. The House avoided the spending caps by adding a separate $38 billion war-fighting account, a strategy frequently employed by the George W. Bush administration to hide deficit spending during the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.
The Bush administration never included war spending in their annual budgets to hide high deficits. It is a neat trick except that the war funds still added to our national deficit, reported or not in the official federal budget. The Secretary of Defense and the Joint Chiefs of Staff are against separating out war-fighting funds from the rest of the Pentagon budget. After all, isn't it the purpose of the Pentagon to fight or prepare for war?
The answer, of course, is so that the House can say that they maintained their fake funding caps, even while adding an extra $38 billion to the Pentagon's budget. As stated by Rep. Steny Hoyer of Maryland, this is a classic "sneak around" used by Congress to avoid their own spending ceilings.
But while Congress is keen on the idea of ignoring spending limits for the benefit of the Pentagon, it can't seem to find a way to fund domestic spending on such items as roads, bridges, education and health care. Any extra spending in those areas require cuts in other areas according to Republicans; a rule they ignored for defense spending.
The Defense Department is the only department in our government where Congress actually provides more money than requested by the department. This is because members of Congress get a little slice of the Pentagon pie, to be spent in their districts or state. Who cares if the ships and aircraft funded in the budget are not the ships and aircraft requested by our military; if these ships and aircraft are built in a Congressman's backyard, they must be funded.
While domestic spending must live under spending caps — even budget cuts — the Pentagon seems to just ignore them, with a wink from Congress, of course. The most recent example was outlined this past Friday by Christian Davenport, writing for The Washington Post. Davenport reported on an audit review recently completed on the building of the Gerald R. Ford, our nation's newest aircraft carrier. The carrier, which recently started sea trials, was built in Newport News, Virginia.
The USS Ford will cost almost $12.9 billion dollars, plus $4.7 billion in research and development. The ship is $6 billion over budget. In the words of Sen. John McCain of Arizona, the USS Ford is "one of the most spectacular acquisition debacles in recent memory." But one does not have to look hard or long to find similar "acquisition debacles." Paul Francis, managing director for the department of Acquisition and Sourcing Management of the Government Accounting Office, cites a "long line" of military projects that cost significantly more than projected.
In fact, according to Davenport's reporting, the GAO predicted that cost estimates for the carrier were unrealistic, but the Pentagon pushed forward with the contract anyway. Why worry about inaccurate spending estimates when Congress is willing to give the Pentagon a blank check?
During a Senate hearing on the cost of the USS Ford, Sen. McCain, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, stated that America "can't afford to pay $12.9 billion for a single ship." We just did, Sen. McCain. We just did. And guess what, America? We have two more Ford-class carriers on order.
As I wrote a few years ago when the USS Ford was just $2 billion over budget, if we transferred the money spent on just this one carrier, we could build more than 2,000 new elementary schools for our nation's children. That equals 40 new schools for each of our 50 states. Now that's what I call an investment in our nation's future.
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Tom Zirpoli is a professor and program coordinator of the human services management graduate program at McDaniel College. His column appears Wednesdays. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.