The latest draft of the 2020 National Defense Authorization Act floating around the House Armed Services Committee would authorize the purchase of a grand total of 90 F-35 fighter jets — a dozen more than the Pentagon requested, and far more than common sense would dictate.
Recently, the Government Accountability Office published yet another dismal report about the F-35 program. Apparently, spare parts are in short supply, repair capabilities are severely limited, and the global network in place to supply spare parts is, to quote the report, “immature.” None of this is out of character for the program, which, at $1.5 trillion, is one of the priciest weapon systems in human history and, considering its price, isn’t performing that well — last year, F-35s failed to fulfill their tasked missions’ slightly over a quarter of the time. Yet, this incongruence between cost and results isn’t at all unusual; it’s the typical outcome of the latest development in pork barrel politics.
The colorful phrase, “pork barrel politics,” which likely derives from the way that slaves crowded around savory barrels of salt pork in the antebellum south, refers to the dubious legislative practice of directing funds (“pork”) from the federal budget to finance local projects in the interest of winning the favor of one’s constituency or appeasing special interests.
For most of U.S. history, such legislative maneuvering was considered wholly unconstitutional. For example, in 1792, an unprecedented bill, which would have granted bounties to cod fisheries, was lambasted by one of the Constitution’s signatories, Rep. Hugh Williamson of North Carolina. Citing the Constitution’s articles on taxation, he argued, “The clear and obvious intention of the articles mentioned was, that Congress might not have the power of imposing unequal burdens — that it might not be in their power to gratify one part of the Union by oppressing another.” He prophesied that, if the bill were to pass, it would not only be fishermen claiming federal funds, but eventually, “all manner of persons … until they have eaten up the bread of our children.” And for almost two centuries, this sort of attitude was the norm.
In the 1990s, however, provisions tacked onto appropriations bills directing funds to particular recipients, known as earmarks, began to be widely used by legislators as a way of funding pet projects without much scrutiny — making earmarks and pork barrel politics almost synonymous.
When Newt Gingrich ascended to the speakership of the House, earmarks became his signature, albeit costly, tool to help re-elect Republicans — a famous 1996 memo from Gingrich’s office regarding an appropriations bill included the famous line, “Are there any Republican members who could be severely hurt by the bill or need a specific district item in the bill?” Unsurprisingly, costs ballooned in the years that followed. Fortunately, earlier this month, Senate Republicans voted in favor of a bill that would permanently ban earmarks. Yet, even if that bill succeeds, pork barrel politics will still thrive.
Defense contractors, cognizant of legislators’ taste for pork, have spent the last few decades cooking up incredibly savory weapons programs that allow legislators to circumvent the earmark process while still getting pork out the federal barrel and into their districts. Chiefly, defense contractors accomplish this by spicing rich financial benefits — usually in the form of manufacturing jobs for particular locales — into their programs. For example, Lockheed Martin, which controls the supply chain for the F-35, touts in its brochure for the program that it supports “over 220,000 direct and indirect jobs” in the United States, though it doesn’t mention that most of those jobs are geographically concentrated.
Notably, the site of Lockheed’s assembly plant for the F-35 is in Fort Worth, Texas, which just so happens to be within the district of Rep. Kay Granger, the ranking member of the House Appropriations Committee and formerly the chairwoman of the Subcommittee on Defense Appropriations. A comparable story is involved with similarly otherwise inexplicable high-cost and low-result, labor-heavy purchases, like additional M1-Abrams tanks and littoral combat ships — even though the Army and Navy respectively didn’t ask for them and have expressed skepticism about their relative usefulness.
In all of these cases, powerful legislators, whose illicit appetites are being fed by titanic defense contractors, are using federal funds to win favor in their constituencies by voting for defense contracts that are often badly managed, unwarranted by national security concerns, and unjustifiably costly to Americans taxpayers. In the long run, systemic reforms akin to those that curbed earmark-abuse ought to be developed, but in the short run, legislators ought to immediately decry and stymie the legislative abuse of their more gluttonous peers.