NEW YORK – Body armor that can mean the difference between life and death has been tough to find for battalions of U.S. troops on the bloodiest battlefields of Iraq.
But that hasn’t stopped Congress from using Pentagon funds on thousands of projects that do more to protect politicians’ jobs than save soldiers’ lives.
The Defense Department Appropriations Act of 2006 was designed to oil the American war machine, pay military salaries and buy tanks, drones, destroyers and Hellfire missiles.
But the bill also doled out taxpayer grants to dog mushers in Alaska, environmentalists in Iowa, museum curators in Texas, cranberry farmers in Wisconsin and wild turkey hunters in the Carolinas.
With no scrutiny, oversight or debate, lawmakers larded the $458 billion spending package with a record-breaking 2,966 pork barrel projects for their home districts at a cost of $11.1 billion.
One big winner: The jack-in-the-pulpit. The poor wildflower had been attacked in its leafy upstate New York home by the Japanese knotweed, a killer plant. So $200,000 was given to a group called Weed-It-Now Taconic to repel the scourge.
“I am a strong supporter of the forest habitat and the global war on weeds,” said Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. “But they don’t belong in a military spending bill. … How many guns, bullets or flak vests could we buy with all this money?”
The need for protective gear is urgent: GIs have dug into their own pockets to buy body armor. They’ve been dunned for the price of Kevlar vests damaged by shrapnel. Some had to scrounge scrap yards to jury-rig Humvees with “hillbilly armor.”
Faced with these shortages, Congress authorized $1.2 billion for body armor and $505 million to “up-armor” trucks and convoys.
Yet that figure is dwarfed by the tab for pet projects – nearly seven times as much – that members approved to reward lobbyists and contributors and bolster their re-election prospects.
“Those 2,966 earmarks are a symptom of a disease that is preventing our troops from getting the tools they need to prosecute the war on terror,” said Keith Ashdown, vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense, a bipartisan watchdog group.
He said congressional appropriators were so swamped with demands for pork – about four earmarks were proposed for each one approved – that it delayed the bill’s passage for months. That, in turn, slows delivery of armor.
Among the special-interest projects tacked on to the vital defense bill: $25 million for a “multispecies fish hatchery” in Montana to increase stocks of pike and walleye for warm water fishing.
“These are the wastrels of defense,” said Winslow Wheeler, director of a military reform project at the nonpartisan Center for Defense Information, a think tank. A veteran of 31 years on Capitol Hill, Wheeler says 50 percent to 75 percent of the discussions at most defense appropriations committee hearings now involve home district pork.
No wonder the 1,241-page appropriations bill – signed Dec. 30 by President Bush for the fiscal year ending Sept. 30 – was laden with pork never requested by the Pentagon or the White House.
Like $1.7 million to eradicate brown tree snakes in Guam and $1.5 million to spruce up the rusting Battleship Texas.
And $1.8 million for Los Angeles sixth-graders who are “disrespectful, have poor grades and don’t obey rules.”
Plus $500,000 for curling, dog mushing, snowboarding and a snowshoe biathlon at Alaska’s Arctic Winter Games.
Not to mention $242,000 so South Carolina’s National Wild Turkey Federation can show American hunters how to conserve the turkey’s habitat.
Lobbyist Jack Abramoff – who pleaded guilty last month to trying to bribe public officials – once bragged that appropriations committees were “earmark favor factories” for his clients.
Former Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham, R-Calif., resigned in December after pleading guilty to pocketing $2.4 million in bribes from defense contractors – in exchange for inserting earmarks they wanted in spending bills.