Celebrated as a bipartisan victory, the omnibus bill Congress approved Thursday is yet another example of lawmakers' propensity for overspending. The massive $1.1 trillion spending package funnels more money that it should to defense and other domestic projects. Following the outline set by the Ryan-Murray plan, the bill spends above the levels set by the 2011 sequester and wastes loads of money on special interests.
Although the proposal increases spending across the board, the big winners of this bipartisan spending orgy are the Pentagon and the military-industrial complex. Thanks to Congress' willingness to renege on its commitment to cut spending through sequestration, the Department of Defense won't be subjected to the cuts that had been planned for the next two years.
According to the Pentagon and its allies in Congress, the cuts were savage and unthinkable. However, a look at the omnibus bill reveals that the allegedly funding-starved military is still willing to waste huge amounts of taxpayers’ money on duplicative and nondefense-related items.
The bill, for instance, includes $4 million for alcohol and substance abuse research, $12 million for Alzheimer’s research, $120 million for breast cancer research, $10.5 million for lung cancer research, $20 million for ovarian cancer research, $80 million for prostate cancer research, and more — all of which are nondefense activities and overlap research performed by the National Institute of Health.
A document prepared by the staff of Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., shows the omnibus bill is also stuffed with funding for weapons, including $90 million for Abrams tank upgrades to maintain “critical industrial base capability,” $1.2 billion to the Navy's request to fully fund a second Virginia-class submarine in fiscal year 2014 (the Navy had requested partial funding), and eight additional MQ-9 Reaper UAVs on top of the 12 the Air Force requested. The Coburn document also shows that the omnibus funds unrelated research projects, including $6 million for human, social and culture behavior modeling, and $46.7 million for weapons technology.
This extra spending should be seen for what it is: cronyism, or Congress spending taxpayers' money to benefit its private sector friends regardless of the merit of the expenses. But it gets worse, since the military not only scores more spending through its regular budget, but as a bonus it gets a raise through its Overseas Contingency Operations budget (the OCO or “war” budget). Indeed, although the troop levels have gone down from 60,000 to 30,000 over the past year, the omnibus bill provides more spending for the war effort -- $85.2 billion. That's an almost $5 billion hike over what the spendthrift Pentagon asked for in May.
As many have noted, the funding increase in the war budget is like a “slush fund” for the Pentagon. And we should expect that number to go up, as Congress has used the war budget for extracurricular activities since the wars started in 2002 by abusing the emergency-spending loophole.
Interestingly, there are a few cuts to the defense budget. However, none of them terminate any wasteful programs, but rather shave some money off a few items. That’s quite odd because this was one of the criticisms made about sequestration.
Congress could implement two important reforms that would both increase our security and save money. First, it should reform its spending on health care and retirement as they are the fastest-growing items in the budget, in addition to being unsustainable. Second, it should rethink its strategy in order to meet the country's new threat rather than continue to operate on an outdated national security model. Doing both of these things would likely provide better national security at a lower cost.
Note: this column original stated that the omnibus bill funding for items like the common kill vehicle technology was not even requested by the Pentagon, but was earmarked by a congressional member. Senator Coburn’s report on which this statement was based mistakenly made this claim. We amended this text to reflect this fact.