Sunday, October 01, 2023
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Time To End DoD’s Earmark Dependence

Federal spending is once again in the news in Washington, with the government once again running up against its statutory borrowing limit. Much of the conversation and debate on Capitol Hill has surrounded entitlement and welfare spending. However, another culprit, the Department of Defense (DoD) has been putting an enormous strain on federal spending for years – especially as it pertains to earmarks. Sadly, this has gone largely without debate.

In 2011, then-Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) implemented a moratorium on the use of earmarks in federal legislation. Earmarks are specific grants towards projects or organizations that are not merit-based or based on any competitive funding process. Boehner’s ban on earmarks lasted ten years until the House Democratic Caucus ushered in their return in 2021. So far in fiscal year 2023, earmarks have cost the American taxpayer a grand total of over $26 billion.

Among that number, the DoD received the most funding. This is not a new phenomenon. In fact, the DoD has received the most earmarked funds every fiscal year since 1994. This last year, the agency received $10.2 billion in earmarks, which accounted for a whopping 39.1 percent of all of the earmarks that fiscal year. This is on top of the fact that defense spending accounts for roughly 12 percent of all federal spending and 50 percent of discretionary spending.

Earmarks for the much-maligned F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) program alone totaled over $1.5 billion. The is the sour cherry on top of the program’s overall woes. The total acquisition costs for the JSF are just over $428 billion, whereas initial estimates forecast only $233 billion. The lifetime operations and maintenance costs of the program will likely be a staggering $1.7 trillion.

The bulk of the earmark money for the JSF helped fund the acquisition of 18 aircraft in addition to what the DoD has already requested. Eleven of those aircraft will go to the Air Force, with the other seven going to the Navy.

Stunningly, these new F-35s will also have to be retrofitted, adding to the overall costs. This is an important distinction. While earmarks have a public price tag, they very often necessitate further costs and expenditures not seen by most. These costs will also invariably fall onto the backs of the American taxpayer. For transparency’s sake, it is important that any funds pumped into this program be clearly delineated.

This retrofitting and the fact that the fighters are being divided between two military branches is also significant. Officials within the DoD have recently been clamoring for a foolish Adaptive Engine Transition Program (AETP) for the F-35. The AETP would fund the creation of a second type of engine for the F-35 but would not be uniform between the Navy and Air Force variations of the aircraft. Thus, the parts and maintenance would become more expensive and would lose interchangeability. In the midst of this, earmarks dedicating extra, unnecessary fighters to both branches is especially misguided.

The lack of wisdom in pouring more money into this program altogether is not a new phenomenon either. The late Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) called the JSF program “both a scandal and a tragedy with respect to cost, schedule, and performance.” To be sure, Sen. McCain routinely called for massively increased levels of defense spending. Even he, however, could recognize the fiscal black hole presented by the F-35 JSF program.

There is also the broader consequence of allowing earmarks to fester in the governing process. Earmarks’ propensity to foster reckless spending and corruption is well-documented. Federal expenditures should be based on merits, actual needs, and competitive pricing. The seemingly endless stream of earmarks to the DoD – especially the JSF program – fails to meet any one of those three criteria.

As congressional and administration officials decide how to address the nation’s finances going forward, this is a key opportunity to look at federal spending habits with a scrutiny that has been sorely lacking in recent years. It would be a monumental shame if the DoD – one of the foremost culprits of America’s spending addiction – were to be overlooked in these reform-minded discussions. In fact, it should be one of the first topics on the table.

Dan Savickas is the director of policy at the Taxpayers Protection Alliance.

This article was originally published by RealClearDefense and made available via RealClearWire.