House cuts critical DOD technology programs

Budget maneuvers take money from battlefield systems

The stage is set for a showdown between lawmakers and the Bush administration over the fiscal 2007 Defense Appropriations bill. But political maneuvering in Congress could lead to cuts in critical technology programs needed to fight the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The House bill also pulls funding for the Defense Department’s new National Security Personnel System.

The House passed a $377.6 billion defense funding bill on June 20, granting $4 billion less than President Bush had requested but attaching a $50 billion emergency “bridge” fund for ongoing operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. Appropriators lowered DOD’s base budget by transferring noncombat funding to the legislation’s emergency section, called Title IX. Then lawmakers cut actual battle funding, including combat communications and information systems.

The White House threatened a veto. “These reductions could undermine the readiness and preparedness of the U.S. forces,” said the Office of Management and Budget in a recent policy statement. The administration lambasted the House for moving about $2 billion from the base budget to the emergency spending provisions under Title IX.

“The [House Appropriations] Committee’s action reverses the administration’s policy of funding stable, predictable operations within the base budget,” OMB officials wrote in the policy statement. “Base funding requirements should not be shifted to supplemental bills as a way to increase nonsecurity-related discretionary funding.”

Despite OMB’s outrage, the shell game is not new. “They do that every year,” said Winslow Wheeler, director of the Straus Military Reform Project at the Center for Defense Information in Washington, D.C.

The section of the bill that funds war activities does not have mandatory spending limits. Title IX money is intended for wartime operations, but Congress can hide programs not connected to the war within it and appear to be trimming the budget while actually not saving any money, he said.

Programs needed to fight wars are often cut to make room for initiatives that individual lawmakers consider political priorities, Wheeler said. “They won’t cut the money,” he said. “They’ll just cut that program, and they’ll spend that money on pork.”

The Army’s Single-Channel Ground and Airborne Radio System (Singcars) is a prime example. It is the standard VHF/FM radio soldiers and Marines use and is crucial for convoy communications. Analysts estimate that the armed forces need about 100,000 more radios, and the shortage has been a long-standing concern. Two years ago, soldiers were reportedly going to Radio Shack to buy their own radios out of necessity.

In an emergency supplemental bill passed last month, Congress cut funding for the radios by $167 million, to $525 million. In the fiscal 2007 bill, the House approved $66.2 million in Singcars funding, $50.3 million short of the $116.5 million the administration had requested.

The House would put $152 million into the Title IX bridge fund for the radios, still $65.3 million less than the $217 million cut from the original two requests.

Overall, the House bill shows a pattern of defunding communications and information technology systems in favor of infrastructure projects.

Lawmakers added $1.5 million to the Army Information Systems Security program’s budget, for a total of $91.8 million. Congress had zeroed out the $95.7 million requested for the program in last month’s supplemental spending bill.

The latest appropriations bill boosted funding for the Air Force’s base communications infrastructure to $143.2 million from the requested $135.2 million. Also, warfighting laboratories at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, Calif., received a $10 million increase in funding.

The Senate Appropriations Committee released its own allocations June 22, cutting defense budgets by $9 billion. Not intimidated by the White House’s threats, the Senate committee gave increases to the departments of Agriculture, Labor, Education, Housing and Urban Development, and others.

Details of the Senate’s budget cuts won’t be known until its bill is marked up in late July. Under the Senate plan, the Homeland Security Department receives none of the windfall, but its budget won’t be cut. Lawmakers will likely complete the defense and homeland security bills before the end of the congressional session in October.

The Senate cut its emergency supplemental spending proposal last month from $117 billion to $94.5 billion, which President Bush signed. This round of allocations is seen as senators’ last chance to fund local projects before November’s elections.

Senate tries to put a price on porkThe Senate debated amendments to the fiscal 2007 National Defense Authorization Act on the floor last week. On June 22, the Senate adopted three amendments proposed by Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), right, intended to increase accountability for earmark spending and contract awards.

An earmark is a provision of law that identifies a specific entity, program, project or service to receive funds not requested by the president.

The amendments would require the Defense Department to report annually on:

  • The total cost of earmarking in Defense appropriations bills, including staff time and administration.
  • The purpose and location of each earmark.
  • The ways in which each earmark advances DOD’s goals.
  • The annual report would give Congress and the public a more complete picture of the cost of DOD pork to taxpayers. If passed, the measure would take effect beginning with the fiscal 2008 appropriations bill.

    “Defense-related earmarking has severely damaged Congress’ reputation and siphoned off critical dollars from our troops and ongoing military operations,” Coburn said.

    — Josh Rogin

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