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Taxpayers for Common Sense Commentary: Memorializing Waste

May 27, 2016
Weekly Wastebasket Volume: XXI No. 21

The Memorial Day weekend stretches before us, with promises of hometown parades and weenie roasts. On Memorial Day we remember those who died in service to our country.

Unfortunately, Washington has made a business out of paying lip service to those currently serving their country. Nowhere is that more obvious than in the United States Congress. Any attempt to rein in Pentagon spending is characterized as “not supporting the troops.” In an election year, there is no more damaging an accusation than that.

Is it supporting the troops when the Pentagon wastes money on ineffective “recruiting” tools like the millions given to the NFL and other (tax exempt) professional sports leagues? Last year, Sens. John McCain (R-AZ) and Jeff Flake (R-AZ) released a reportblasting what they call “paid patriotism” - when sports leagues receive Pentagon funds then turn around and have patriotic displays during games. When this became public, the NFL promised an audit and said they would return funds not attributable to recruiting or advertising to the Pentagon. Last week, it was reported that of the roughly $6 million the NFL received for these displays in the last few years, they will return $723,734. At least they did something, we’re waiting for the dollars that went to MLB, NBA, NHL, and MLS to parade back into the treasury.

If the President’s budget request for the Pentagon is ultimately approved as written (it won’t be), spending on the military will be a bit more than $585 billion when you add the base budget to the off-budget warfighting fund. That’s an enormous amount of money that exceeds the rest of the discretionary budget combined and should be able to provide for a robust defense of the United States. As then-Defense Secretary Gates said in 2009, “If the Department of Defense can’t figure out a way to defend the United States on half a trillion dollars a year, then our problems are much bigger than anything that can be cured by buying a few more ships and planes.” Unfortunately, there are many examples of wasteful spending that aren’t ships and planes at the Pentagon and, if you peel the onion a bit on most of them, you will find some type of Congressional parochialism.

At TCS we’ve been talking and writing about anti-competitive practices forced on the Pentagon by the Congress for years. For instance, a decades-long program, maintained by a disgraced and corrupt Member of Congress, to ship coal from Pennsylvania to heat U.S. military installations in Germany is back after being stricken from the Pentagon spending bill last year.

Also lurking in the same bill is language put in the bill every year since the 1990s: a requirement that the Navy purchase all anchor and mooring chain (of four inches in diameter or less) from a U.S. source. Ridiculous. Unfortunately, Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA) was recently successful in her bid to extend this requirement to all vessels owned by the U.S. Corps of Engineers. So, a bad idea is growing. There must be some contractor in Washington State with an interest in this issue. Why do we think that? Well, a House Member from Washington, Rep. Suzan DelBene (D-WA) recently attempted to make that protectionist requirement permanent. It must be exhausting to make sure it’s in the appropriations bill every year. Luckily, her attempt was shot down.

Other similar provisions require the Pentagon to purchase ball bearings and steel plate exclusively from U.S. sources. Let’s be clear, the Pentagon should be able to spend taxpayer dollars as wisely as possible. This can only be done by setting a reasonable standard for the items it needs, putting those items out for bid, and selecting the best value from the responding contractors. Instead, Congress is constantly inserting requirements to help hometown contractors.

The new poster child for anti-competitive corporate welfare is a requirement inserted in the Pentagon policy bill that has the effect of requiring new military recruits to purchase their athletic shoes from just one company, New Balance. If we told you that New Balance makes athletic shoes in Massachusetts and Ohio, and that the Member of Congress who pushed for this new requirement is Rep. Niki Tsongas (D-MA), would you be surprised? No? We weren’t either. This requirement, if it is in the final version of the Pentagon policy bill, would put athletic shoes under the same manufacturing requirement as clothing, tents, and tarpaulins. This particular protectionist law is called the Berry Amendment, and it’s been around since World War Two. Time to retire it, not expand it. Rep. Mark Sanford (R-SC) wanted to offer an amendment to strip this ridiculous new requirement, but the amendment was not allowed.

Congress is to blame for perpetuating these corporate welfare programs. Let them know if you believe they’re a waste of taxpayer dollars.