Buried deep in the funding tables of the recently passed fiscal 2024 Department of Defense Appropriations Act, lawmakers added over 1,000 separate program increases to the Pentagon’s procurement and research accounts. With few exceptions, there is no public record of which lawmaker proposed which increases, or why, or at what long-term cost to taxpayers. The result is over $21 billion in additional spending that wasn’t included in the Pentagon’s budget request, much of which funds projects that will benefit the states, districts or campaign contributors of the lawmakers who proposed them.

A new report by Taxpayers for Common Sense and a new database cataloging 1,072 program increases for procurement as well as research, development, test and evaluation shine a light on this underreported practice.

These program increases are not earmarks, according to Congress — they’re worse. But like earmarks, transparency can help improve them.

Traditional earmarks, rebranded as “Congressionally Directed Spending” in the Senate and “Community Project Funding” in the House, are subject to certain transparency measures. These rules enable taxpayers to identify the projects for which their senators and representatives are seeking additional funds. Legislators are required to define the purpose and beneficiary of these funding requests to prevent conflicts of interest.

In contrast, program increases are the Wild West of the budget process, bound only by the rule that they must be “competitively awarded, or provided to programs that have received competitive awards in the past.” While this requirement seems aimed at preventing legislators from allocating funds to specific recipients for personal or political gain, in reality it permits legislators to funnel taxpayer dollars into projects that politically benefit them, without landing them on the wanted posters.

Like the proverbial outlaw, though, some lawmakers can’t help but brag about their plunder.

House Appropriations Committee Chairman Tom Cole, R-Okla., appeared to take credit in a news release for a $200 million program increase to accelerate delivery of the E-7, an airborne early warning and control aircraft that will replace the E-3 Sentry aircraft, most of which are based at Tinker Air Force Base in Rep. Cole’s district.

The Air Force requested over $600 million for E-7 delivery acceleration in its FY24 unfunded priorities list, an extra-budgetary wish list of funding not included in the Pentagon’s budget request. But an official at Boeing, the company that makes the plane, said that more money could “cut off about six months” of the E-7′s four-year delivery timetable, so it’s unclear if $200 million will make much of a dent.

And even if this funding succeeds in accelerating the delivery timeline, the Pentagon has a long history of accelerating production at the expense of reliability. The F-35 fighter jet, for example, was concurrently developed and produced, leading to maintenance and sustainment challenges that are still significantly impacting the F-35′s mission-capable rates.

According to OpenSecrets, a nonpartisan research group that compiles campaign contribution data, Boeing’s PAC has contributed $15,000 to Rep. Cole’s campaign committee and leadership PAC so far this election cycle, and another $45,000 over the previous three cycles.

Similarly, Sen. Gary Peters, D-Mich., issued a news release celebrating “$4.2 million to help the Army update the Stryker Family of Armored Vehicles with driver-assistance technology,” which he said will “support autonomous capability efforts taking place at the Ground Vehicles Systems Center (GVSC) in Warren,” Michigan. The Stryker vehicle is produced by General Dynamics Land Systems-Canada, a subsidiary of General Dynamics.

General Dynamics, through its PAC and individuals associated with the company, has contributed $60,822 to Sen. Peters’ campaign committee and leadership PAC since 2019. Throughout his Senate tenure, Sen. Peters’ campaign and PAC have received at least $173,872 from General Dynamics’ PAC and individuals associated with the company.

Without a doubt, many of the program increases in the Pentagon spending bill serve legitimate purposes, and some, including those just mentioned, might have been proposed with the nation’s best interests at heart. Taxpayers deserve access to the facts that would allow them to make that assessment for themselves. Unlike items in the president’s budget request, which come with reams of budget justification books, these increases offer no explanation of need nor plans for the program in the future.

Program increases to the Pentagon budget, which is rapidly approaching $1 trillion a year for a department that still can’t pass an audit, should at the very least disclose the names of their sponsors, the reasons behind them and analyses of their long-term costs.

Congress should also require sponsors of program increases to report on the recipients of increases once contracts are awarded.

A modicum of sunlight and oversight would help ensure that future Pentagon budget increases prioritize the nation’s best interests, rather than the interests of politicians and their corporate campaign contributors.

Gabe Murphy is a policy analyst at Taxpayers for Common Sense, a nongovernmental budget watchdog.

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