Every year, Congress prepares for its “fly-in” weeks – the three to four weeks prior to “appropriations season” when money is allocated to various departments and programs. This generally occurs between April and June.
Lobbyists and interest groups from around the country “fly in” to Washington D.C. and meet with Congressional staffers or the elected members themselves, if they have sufficiently close ties to the district or state. Every cause imaginable is on the table for these groups: $1.5 million for a new, local, school program that has “proven” results for success; $3 million to support research for obscure diseases; student loan repayments (e.g. absolving student debts). The list is endless.
This process is indicative of how things work in Washington D.C. and illustrates why trying to rein in federal power by engaging the inside the Beltway processes will never work. The system is so rigged, intertwined and intentionally obscure, even “good” people in positions of power can’t change the direction of the ship. No matter whom you elect president or whom you send to Capitol Hill, the process will continue on as before.
That leaves one option – state and local action to rein in the beast.
The Uncontrollable Bureaucracy
Here’s a how this all works. Imagine everyone holding onto a pile of money. That pile represents all of the dollars that were actually handed out by the feds during the previous year. All of these groups want to maintain or increase their baseline dollars for the coming year. The goal every appropriations season is to get Congress to take some, or all, of the money from one group and give it to another. Unless a particular program or group is especially important to a member of Congress, money will be allocated (in Congressional speak – block granted) to a specific department (e.g. HHS, DoEd, DoT) that will disperse those dollars.
Thanks to the Budget Control Act of 2011 (BCA) – a byzantine and ham-handed attempt to control federal spending – Congress agreed to reduce the deficit or suffer an across-the-board series of cuts known as sequestration. However, while the sequestration is characterized as affecting all federal agencies equally, on the animal farm, some animals are more equal than others.
Government welfare programs such as Social Security and Medicare are exempted from sequestration. Though defense spending is subject to sequestration, wars (aka: Overseas Contingency Operations or OCO) are not. Therefore, the military is not really constrained by civilian oversight. Instead, it operates under an independent military bureaucracy of its own. Despite the BCA, officials at the Department of Defense (DoD) do not believe they are responsible for taking the same fiscal medicine as other government agencies.
In the wake of the 2011 BCA, DoD officials never made any plans to accommodate the sequester cuts that were agreed upon by the House, Senate and Oval Office. In the fall of 2012, the DoD had only three months until the automatic sequester cuts would go into place, yet they admitted they had not drawn up any plans on the best way to implement those cuts. From the perspective of the DoD, they are above the law and may reject any budget cut they so please. And sadly, the DoD has been correct in its assessment up to this point.
In Robert Gates’ book, Duty: Memoirs of A Secretary at War, he detailed how the bureaucracy of the DoD not only hindered his work as Secretary of Defense but also shaped public policy. Though he never explicitly says it, as the country’s largest federal agency the DoD largely functions as a rogue operation that effectively champions its interests over those of the country at large.
Gates could not effectively navigate the complex of shipyards, depots, bases and overall jobs supported by the DoD. Elected representatives repeatedly reminded him that “vast industries and many local economies are dependent on decisions made in the Pentagon every day.” Gates is quick to remind us that even in the midst of fighting two wars “such parochial issues were so high on [Senators’] priority list.”
There is simply too much money being spread around. The intertwined relationship between the DoD, defense contractors, elected representatives, and of course campaign donors, makes effective oversight nearly impossible. In one instance, during a Senate hearing involving Gates, a member of his staff noticed that Senator Patty Murray of Washington was using talking points printed on Boeing letterhead.
Gates also had to contend with members of Congress doing end runs around his decisions to scrap a defense projects by going directly to a branch of the military and asking them to lobby him directly. In the same way, military branches would go directly to a congressman or senator and ask them to appropriate dollars for a favored project that Gates had rejected.
The Bait-and-Switch in the Works
Budget gimmicks are standard in Washington. For example, plans to balance the budget in 10 years always assume a consistent economic growth rate and the continuation of tax cuts (known in the game as tax extenders). Elected members and their staffs know this is a gimmick, but these mathematical tricks allow them to “honestly” sell a budget plan to the American voter.
The Congress, White House and DoD are currently waging a budget battle. Nothing less than the definitions of transparency, accountability and budget slush funds are at stake. The use of OCO funding as a budgetary gimmick to circumvent those Budget Control Act Sequestration cuts imposed on Congress and the White House will create a defense slush fund for increased defense spending and favored pet projects. This sham will be sold to Americans under the guise of a reduction in military spending when in fact military spending will increase to the tune of tens of billions of dollars.
How can the White House, Congress and DoD spend more on the military but tell the public they are spending less?
For the Fiscal Year 2016 defense authorization (i.e. defense budget), President Obama provided $38 billion more in the DoD’s base budget than was legally allowed by the BCA. The base budget consists of military and civilian pay and benefits, operating costs and procurement, research and development, and new facilities. The base budget is also constrained by the 2011 BCA. The wars are funded through OCO.
The way to get around the BCA was to include an extra $38 billion into the OCO. The OCO does not count against the BCA, giving the impression – on paper – that the federal government is fiscally responsible.
With the sleight of hand this process allows, that the $38 billion will not pay for war fighting – as OCO funds are supposed to. Instead, it will go toward the base budget costs (employee pay, operating costs and procurement). Since that $38 billion cannot be legally be used for the DoD base budget it must be washed through the OCO. The rest of us might recognize this as money laundering.
Remember, we will not be saved through Washington’s machinations. Real change can only come from the state and local level. The federal bureaucracy has been corrupted. There is only one option for Americans to consider: engage the politicos, lobbyists, banksters, warmongers and war-profiteers locally.
One such local solution is the Tenth Amendment Center’s Defend The Guard bill. This bill will empower Governors to “withhold or withdraw approval of the transfer of this State’s National Guard to federal control” unless those troops are called up pursuit to Constitutional authorities. The Washington cocktail party circuit will never be as influential as fifty Governors, state legislators and an engaged populace.