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On Capitol Hill, a Return to Pet Military Projects

Mar. 23, 2014 - 03:45AM   |  
By JOHN T. BENNETT   |   Comments
Sens. McCaskill And Ayotte Discuss Additional Meas
US lawmakers, such as Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., have signaled increased interest in parochial issues since the bitter partisan deficit-reduction debate has died down. Ayotte is arguing against retiring the Air Force's A-10 aircraft. (Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images)
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WASHINGTON — There was scant evidence for weeks that a bipartisan US budget deal would bring a return to the practice of finishing annual spending bills — until recently, when the first signs emerged.

On Capitol Hill, when both chambers pass annual agency appropriations bills, it’s known as “regular order.” But for much of the Barack Obama era, bitter partisan bickering over reducing America’s massive debt overtook hearings intended to focus on agencies’ annual budgets, including ones held by the four defense committees.

The deficit-reduction era showed that if most lawmakers are sharply focused on preventing the other political party from achieving its desired federal spending cuts and reforms to pare the deficit, parochial concerns about a jobs-creating military base or weapons-manufacturing facility in their district or state become a back-burner issue.

And without that focus, there is little impetus to do more than just pass another temporary spending measure that mostly keeps a large number of lawmakers’ pet projects rolling along.

No more. Parochialism is back.

Lawmakers, during several recent defense budget hearings, pressed Pentagon brass hard to explain cuts proposed in their districts and states, and lobbying them to consider other options.

The practice made its return to the halls of Congress as Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey and other Pentagon leaders made their rounds to various congressional defense panels to testify about the fiscal 2015 Pentagon spending plan. The blueprint proposes controversial moves such as big troop cuts, a base-closure round, personnel-benefits changes, aircraft-fleet retirements and paring shipbuilding.

Lawmakers and analysts say Washington’s fiscal battles are at least on pause pending the November midterm elections, which could give Republicans control of the House and Senate. That means members are free to do what they long have done best: Posture to protect their pet defense items.

There is perhaps no better example than one exchange from a March 13 House Appropriations Defense subcommittee hearing, when House GOP Deputy Whip Rep. Tom Cole of Oklahoma applauded Pentagon officials for making “tough decisions” given spending caps.

He then, however, criticized plans to cut the Air Force’s airborne warning and control system (AWACS) fleet by seven aircraft. If the administration’s plans are enacted, the fleet would shrink from 31 to 24.

“You made some tough choices in this budget concerning our AWACS fleet, and that’s a pretty low density but high-use asset that we’re using right now” to monitor Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Cole told Hagel and Dempsey. “And in full disclosure, it’s a parochial concern. Most of those are stationed in my district, at Tinker Air Force Base, so obviously I’ve got a concern there.”

During the same hearing, GOP Rep. Kay Granger, who represents the Texas district where F-35 joint strike fighters are built, pressed Hagel and Dempsey on which countries China and Russia might sell their latest fighter jets to. How would those transactions, she asked, “impact the ability of the US and our allies to establish and maintain air superiority in those regions?”

The implication from Granger, who is a leader of the Congressional F-35 Caucus, was clear: Shouldn’t the US be buying more of the Lockheed Martin-made jets instead of proposing modest reductions?

Parochialism reared its head during a March 5 Senate Armed Services Committee hearing as well.

Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., pushed back against proposed cuts to the Air Force’s A-10 attack plane fleet. Ayotte’s husband was an A-10 pilot.

She cited comments made by Air Force Maj. Gen. Paul Johnson, the service’s director of operational capability requirements, in one mainstream media report: “There’s a risk that attrition will be higher than it should be.”

Ayotte’s grim-but-parochial take on Johnson’s conclusion: “That’s a clever way of saying more people will get hurt and die, and extreme risk is that you might not win.”

And on March 14, House Armed Services Committee member Rep. Stephen Palazzo, R-Miss., mixed bluntness with parochialism.

“I want to focus on the third Air Force proposal to remove missions from Keesler Air Force Base within the past two years,” Palazzo told Air Force officials. “I’ll tell you up front: I’m going to fight to kill this one just as I fought to kill the previous two.”

Guggenheim Partners, a financial services firm, declared in a March 16 defense market report that “parochial priorities will weigh heavily in budget markup.”

“We continue to expect the upcoming markup of the defense authorization and appropriations bills to have a meaningful impact on a number of programs and reshape the current perception of ‘winners and losers,’ ” the report said. ■

Aaron Mehta contributed to this report.

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