Why? Because defense is unique. It’s not agriculture; not commerce; not health, education and welfare; not state ― not like any other government appropriation. It is the result of the Constitution’s clear first charge to the nation to “provide for the common defense.”
Accordingly, defense must always be the first funding priority of the United States Congress, and under no circumstance should its funding be negotiated against other departmental programs such as infrastructure, foreign aid or domestic welfare. Defense funding is a stand-alone requirement, which only of itself ensures the security and survivability of the nation, and this point is indisputable.
Now to “earmarks.” Prior to 2010, earmarking for many years was the common practice of adding funding for defense programs not submitted to Congress in the annual budget process by the Pentagon due to budget shortfalls.
What caused the shortfalls? The Office of Management and Budget, an arm of the White House, annually determines the spending limit for each government agency. In the case of defense, it is OMB that decides the defense secretary’s budget cap, i.e., the dollar limit to cover the defense secretary’s anticipated expenditures for the coming year, limited by the need to fund other government agencies.
While the secretary of defense in the president’s name submits an annual budget to Congress within the guidelines prescribed by OMB, prior to 2010 former chairmen of defense appropriations committees Rep. Jack Murtha and Sen. Daniel Inouye, major advocates of a strong military, annually entertained a defense “unfunded requirements list.”
The list, provided by the military services, consisted of three tiers of need: It established what additional funds were required to win the next war; what funds were required to maintain military operations; and what additional funds would buy “good to have” necessities. None of these additional funding requirements were within the funding level established by OMB. They had to be added by Congress via earmarks.
In 2010, however, the perfect storm destroyed the “earmark” process. Rep. Murtha died. Within days, Rep. David Obey, an opponent of the earmark process, supported by Rep. Nancy Pelosi, terminated earmarking within the House Appropriations Committee.
Sen. Inouye, diametrically opposed to Obey, remained completely supportive of the earmark process, understanding that technologies funded by earmarks jump-started defense research programs by saving money and years in the normal military weapons development process. However, with the House Appropriations Committee’s termination of earmark consideration, Sen. Inouye was forced to concede.
Ironically, just as earmarks were terminated, the staffs of the appropriations committees had factually fixed the problems of abuse that generated the termination.
House members and senators in the past submitted their requested earmarks for programs largely of their “liking,” earmark funding not supported by the Department of Defense, not needed, not wanted but yet supported and increased in subsequent years as a program. These funds would often be considered “pork.”
Members were also required now to post their requests on their individual websites for full transparency. This eliminated any perception that nonproductive, nonsupported weapons programs were thrown into the appropriations bill, as earmarks were now required to be consistent with stated Defense Department goals.
Despite appropriations committees having purged the earmarking practice, a handful of opponents continued to vilify a problem that had already been fixed as an expedient for personal notoriety and self-aggrandizement.
What was really accomplished by discarding earmarks? Statistically, about 2,000 companies across this nation as reflected in the 2008 defense appropriations bill, the equivalent of 40 defense companies per state, most dependent solely on earmarks to sustain liquidity, were put out of business in each of our 50 contiguous states.
Think that one through, America.
Companies closed; jobs lost; technologies lost; ships not sailing; aircraft not flying; pilots not training and leaving the services in droves; weapons not modernized; diagnostic and prognostic technology development dumped; spare parts no longer available for ships, aircraft and simulators due to the shut down of second-tier contractors producing parts with earmark funding; and ground, sea and aviation accidents climbing off the charts.
Medical technologies such as those advancing prosthetic development, skin and eye restoration were squandered, as well, all mostly for the sake of some arguable element of relevance restored to the Senate Armed Services Committee and its chairman, beforehand largely ignored by the Pentagon, much of industry and by both appropriations committees.
Earmarks, as an aside, were also good for Congress. In states wherein defense research and development were conducted and supported by earmarks, House members and senators worked together, across the aisle, Republicans with Democrats, Democrats with Republicans, to bring defense business to their states.
Earmarks were also “called out” by President Donald Trump from the White House on Jan. 22, 2018, as a process Congress should consider restoring to reintroduce collegiality and cooperation among members, both words long lost in today’s totally dysfunctional Congress.
Can earmarks be restored? Of course. As readily as they were terminated.
The chairs of appropriations committees need to again assume responsibility for defining and funding “add-on” programs ultimately a part of the defense appropriations bill, and overturn positions taken on the issue by those few in Congress who may be erroneously perceived as unchallengeable on matters of Defense.
Major and second-tier defense contractors in all corners can assist by toppling the ill-founded logic of earmark termination by advocating for members of Congress willing to support earmark restoration.
Industry’s tools for this are well in hand. In today’s Congress, a voracious appetite for votes and dollars is what makes most politicians comply with constituent interests and demands. By bringing vote and campaign contribution pressures to bear on sitting members, current policy can be overturned, and U.S. dominance in research, development and application of military technologies can be restored.
These types of actions are essential if we are to keep our Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines combat-ready, and our sons and daughters who are serving in those services capable of winning on the next battlefield and able to return home safely.
This is what earmarks do and “why” — and what makes defense unique.
Matthew R. Kambrod is a former deputy assistant secretary of the U.S. Army for aviation research, development and acquisition. He is the author of “Lobbying for Defense: An Insider’s View.”