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Research Article

Beware the Pork-Hawk: In Pursuit of Reelection, Congress Sells Out the Nation’s Defense


     
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We are accustomed to thinking that in regard to spending for national defense, some people are hawks, others doves. These birds disagree sharply in their answers to the question, How much defense spending is enough? In recent years a new bird, the cheap hawk, has been sighted with growing frequency. This one wants a strong defense. He may or may not want more spending for the military, but he definitely wants more bang for the buck. He worries about weapons that don't work as they are supposed to and about spending for purposes that deliver less military punch than other programs sacrificed in the budget process.

The advent of the cheap hawk has pushed the defense debate beyond the old question of how much is enough and raised to the forefront the more important question of how we should spend whatever amount is available. Obviously, the nation’s security is not promoted simply by spending money under the heading of defense.

Unfortunately, a great deal of the budget is now soaked up by items that masquerade as defense but actually make little or no contribution to national security. Many of these spending programs are, in effect, welfare programs—not for ghetto dwellers, homeless people, or other unfortunates, but welfare nonetheless.

In contriving and delivering this pseudo-defense largess, another common defense bird enters the picture. Though informed birdwatchers all know about this one, it has yet to receive an accepted name. I propose to call it the pork-hawk.

In Congress, the pork-hawk may appear to be a hawk, a dove, or a cheap hawk. You can’t tell by the plumage or the call. You have to check its nesting habits. You can generally identify it by its tendency to lie down very close to constituents and political action committees and by its constant twittering about reelection. If you observe its behavior in the defense field, you’ll find it pecking away at the tiniest details. The pork-hawk thrives on micromanaging the defense program, stipulating not only how much will be spent for certain broad defense purposes but how much will be spent for each of the several thousand line-items in the annual defense budget and exactly how the Pentagon must manage that spending.

The habits of the pork-hawk can be observed, for example, in the history of the A-7. This subsonic attack plane, produced by the Vought Corporation and first used in the late 1960s by both the Navy and the Air Force for close air support, was an effective weapon in its day. By the mid-1970s, however, Pentagon planners considered it obsolescent. The Navy wanted to start acquiring the F/A-18, the Air Force the F-16. In the late 1970s and early ’80s, the Air National Guard was the only military service that wanted any more A-7s, and even the Guard wanted only the two-seat trainer.

Yet Congress continued to fund the program for years. Why? Because Dallas-based Vought, the Guard, and the powerful Texas delegation demanded it. Such a three-sided coalition is aptly described as an iron triangle.

The Texas delegation is one of the largest and most cohesive in Congress. At the time, it included the venerable George Mahon (D), who chaired the House Defense Appropriations Subcommittee for three decades before retiring in 1979, and Sen. John Tower (R), a senior member of the Armed Services Committee and its chairman in the early ’80s. Whereas some senators are known to favor one weapon or another, one service or another, Tower was said to simply “favor Texas.” Of course, the Texans always claimed that the A-7 still had substantial military value.

The purity of the coalition’s motives was put to a test in the House in July 1981. Rep. Toby Moffett (D-Conn.) offered an amendment to the authorization bill that would switch funds from the A-7s to more modern F-16s for the Air National Guard. The beauty of the proposal was that the Guard would get its planes, better ones at that; it would get more planes, because 13 F-16s, coming from a big production run, could be purchased for the same price as 12 A-7s from a small production run; and to top it off, the F-16 was manufactured in Texas!

It was a deal no one could refuse—unless, of course, the issue was really the fortunes of Vought and its congressional allies. Sure enough, the Texas delegation opposed the amendment, concerned that keeping Vought going had more political value than giving a bit more business to General Dynamics, which produced the F-16 at a Texas plant. Vought’s friends in Congress were joined by the Guard, which was intent on fulfilling its plans for acquiring the A-7K two-seat trainer. (Several sources, including Defense Secretary Harold Brown, alleged that the Guard wanted the A-7Ks because its commanders were too old to fly high-performance aircraft by themselves.) Moffett’s amendment went down on a vote of 148 to 268.

Without doubt, the A-7s funded in fiscal years 1978-81 resulted from congressional micromanagement. (Arguably, many of the planes bought earlier also sprang from this source.) Altogether, the Pentagon got 56 aircraft it did not want—24 A-7Es for the Navy and 32 A-7Ks for the Air National Guard.

Many defense commentators tend to dismiss such congressional micromanagement as “small potatoes.” They admit that many members of Congress, especially chairmen and senior members of key defense and appropriations committees, make their little grabs and carry the loot back to the home folks to buy votes. But the real action, the truly massive waste and mismanagement in the defense budget, these experts believe, lies elsewhere—in the millions that Litton Industries overcharged the Pentagon for military electronics products, for example, or in the several billion required to fix the poorly performing B-1.

Yet the A-7s procured by the pork-hawks cost the taxpayers hundreds of millions. Although it is difficult to identify the costs specifically attributable to adding 56 unwanted planes to the inventory, it appears from scattered information presented by the services to congressional committees that the total cost was approximately $575 million, equivalent to about $700 million in today’s dollars. Because these aircraft crowded out more-effective weapons, their net contribution to the nation’s security may well have been negative. One can hardly say that such waste is small potatoes.

Congressional micromanagement of the defense program, on the increase since the early 1970s, burgeoned in the 1980s. Within Congress, its sources include growing committee rivalries, fragmented power, and proliferating staff. The momentous shifts of the political landscape associated with the Vietnam War and the Watergate scandal added impetus to the growth of micromanagement. These forces diminished the prestige of the military establishment and the Executive Office of the President and gave rise to a more assertive and resourceful legislative branch. In the new environment, the pork-hawk has soared.

Congressional micromanagement reveals itself in various forms. One is to require the Pentagon to take specific actions. One year, for example, Congress ordered the Department of Defense to double its purchases from minority suppliers during the next year. Congress has laid down the law about how many European-made subsystems to include in the U.S. version of the Roland missile: not less than 350. At various times Congress has prohibited the Pentagon from developing a second source for M-1 tank engines, ordered the Air Force to maintain air transport it didn’t want at McChord AFB, and banned the Army’s proposed relocation of helicopter maintenance from Pennsylvania to Texas. In several different years, it has directed DOD to purchase 300,000 tons of expensive anthracite coal—produced in Pennsylvania—for shipment to bases in Europe.

The variety of such actions makes them impossible to summarize. But they have vastly increased. In 1970, Congress required 82 specific actions; in 1976, 304. And in 1987, Congress issued 807 dictates to the Pentagon.

An even more important development than specific mandates is Congress’ mounting compulsion to adjust the line-items of the defense budget—such as appropriating funds for the 56 A-7s that the Pentagon didn’t want. Again, 1970 provides a basis for comparison. In that year, Congress made 830 adds or cuts to line-items in authorization and appropriations acts. By 1976, the number had climbed to 1,254, and in 1987 Congress micromanaged 3,422 line-items.

This form of congressional involvement in the details of the defense budget doesn’t just add to spending. It can also undermine effective management at DOD, the armed forces, and the contractors. Interconnected parts of the budget are thrown out of proper relation to one another. Congress directs the Pentagon to buy additional M-1 tanks, but not more of the support vehicles that are needed to operate them; or additional aircraft carriers, but not more of the naval aircraft that use them. It slashes the ammunition budget in order to buy more guns. It stretches out the planned purchases of F-14s, and Grumman’s production lines are no longer being used at an optimal rate. Such juggling of the budget makes effective planning nearly impossible.

Although most of the micromanagement takes place in the armed services committees and the defense appropriations subcommittees, activity on the floor of the House and the Senate has also escalated. Before 1969, the House usually considered only a handful of amendments to the authorization bill, the Senate none at all. By 1985, each house was considering more than 100 amendments and spending more than a week debating the bill. Many of the amendments are position-taking actions on broad policy matters such as nuclear weapons or arms control, but a look at the legislative history of the authorization bill for any recent year reveals that many of the amendments are pure micromanagement.

The pork-hawk flies over the entire defense field, including R&D and the procurement of major weapons systems. But even if we look only at pork-barreling in the “soft underbelly”—the construction, operations, and maintenance accounts—huge amounts of spending are at stake and up for congressional grabs.

Former Sen. Barry Goldwater (R-Ariz.), one of the few recent members of Congress to speak frankly, was not afraid to take aim at the pork-hawk. He was uncommonly well informed about the military, and shortly after his retirement from the Senate in 1987 he wrote an article for Armed Forces Journal International blasting Congress for promoting instability, inefficiency, delay, and confusion. He pointed to “the increasing number of legislators who want to play ‘pork barrel’ politics with the defense budget” and warned that “their patronage appetites continue to grow.”

Even Senator Goldwater, however, has an ambiguous record. His role in another pork-hawk case illustrates the ambiguity.

The story of the A-10, another subsonic attack plane, resembles the story of the A-7 in important respects. After buying some 700 A-10s in the late 1970s and early ’80s, the Air force decided that acquiring more of them was less important than purchasing other weapons, especially F-16s, adaptable to the same close air support mission but capable of effective battlefield air interdiction as well. Of course, people with a stake in continued production of the A-10 fought to keep it going. The large New York delegation and its powerful committee heads—Joseph Addabbo (D), chairman of the House Defense Appropriations Subcommittee from 1979 to 1986, and Samuel Stratton (D), chairman of the House Armed Services Committee’s subcommittee on procurement—intervened to stretch out the procurement program. It was, observed journalist Hedrick Smith, “a case study in protecting pork for the home folks.”

Addabbo, who represented a Queens district, was certainly no hawk, but he was manifestly a pork-hawk. Although he opposed many programs pushed by the Pentagon, he invariably promoted military installations and contractors, especially Grumman and Fairchild, located in or near his district. A New York Times reporter described him as “a champion of Long Island military projects,” and fellow congressman George J. Hochbrueckner (D) praised Addabbo as “the big savior of Long Island.” When Hedrick Smith questioned Addabbo about the apparent inconsistency of his dovishness and his support for military pork-barrel projects, he shrugged and responded: “Why not build them in your own area, the same as everyone else does.”

For a while, Goldwater, a senior member of the Armed Services Committee, gave the A-10 strong support. But in 1982 he abruptly turned against further acquisitions. Addressing Air Force witnesses at a hearing, he made an extraordinary statement. “I know what you are up against,” he told the generals. “You have the parochial problem of Massachusetts, New York, Pennsylvania, and Maryland, all wanting to keep that A-10 going just like they bought A-7s to keep Texas happy.” But Goldwater thought the time had come to just say no. “I know most of you think you don't need them, but you come over here to tell us you do need them just to keep some people [in Congress] happy.”

Ultimately, Goldwater did use his influence to shut down the A-10 line, which received no procurement funding after 1982 despite the determined efforts of the New Yorkers and their allies. But the A-10 program staggered to its demise in a way that reflects credit on no one.

Through 1980, the program was defensible. It allocated resources to an important and neglected military mission. It was, in defense analyst Richard Stubbing’s words, “a rare managerial success—coming in close to cost and performing as well as promised.”

The trouble arose when the plane approached the end of its planned production run. Members of Congress and contractors tried to prolong its life, and the stretch-out began. Unit costs soared. In 1980 the Air Force procured 144 planes for about $6.3 million each. The next year, when procurement fell to 60 planes, the cost jumped to $8.7 million per plane. By 1982 the Pentagon was down to 20 planes, each one costing $10.5 million. Only a modest fraction of the cost escalation reflected inflation. And had the friends of the A-10 succeeded in spending the $357 million appropriated but, thanks largely to Goldwater’s opposition, not authorized in fiscal 1983, the unit cost would have been almost $18 million—for an airplane a committee of military men believed could be replaced with a better attack plane that could be produced for less than $3 million.

Although the administration’s budgetary shifts and the gamesmanship of the Air Force contributed to the debacle, certain members of Congress deserve much of the blame. Addabbo, Sen. Alfonse D’Amato (R), and others in the New York coalition hardly bothered to conceal their attempt to turn the A-10 into a pure make-work program. But Goldwater’s actions also raise questions. In 1982 he was remarkably frank about the parochialism involved in prolonging acquisitions, but his own behavior has been erratic, swinging from emphatic support in 1981 to ridicule in 1983—a switch that lacked a compelling military rationale and seemed capricious.

Whatever else one might say about the A-7 and the A-10 programs, the planes did have some military utility. The same could not be said about the T-46 trainer aircraft program. This consumed several hundred million dollars, then sank in an ignominious denouement that featured contractor incompetence and congressional parochialism. After the T-46’s supporters had taken extraordinary measures to salvage the program, which was manifestly not worth saving, a congressional compromise terminated it. The T-46 line had brought forth only two prototypes and a single production-model aircraft.

But did the termination signify that lawmakers had spared taxpayers some wasteful military spending? Not exactly. The fix was itself a monument to congressional parochialism. The cure was only a little better than the disease.

The Air Force awarded the T-46 development contract to Fairchild in 1982, but the program never really got going. In 1985 Air Force examiners found that approximately 40 percent of the hardware was defective, and company inspectors were passing 24 percent of the defective items. Fairchild’s costs were running 80 percent above budget, and the project was behind schedule. The examiners rated the company unsatisfactory in all eight areas of management and contract compliance they checked.

The Air Force expressed its displeasure by halving its progress payments to Fairchild and asking Cessna how much the company would charge to upgrade the existing trainer fleet of T-37s. Under increasing pressure to restrain spending, the Air Force recommended that the T-46 be dropped from the service’s five-year budget plan or, alternatively, that the program be switched to another contractor. Congressional friends of the T-46 swung into action.

Its chief proponents were, not surprisingly, the New Yorkers, especially Rep. Thomas Downey (D), whose district included Fairchild’s plant on Long Island, where various military projects were winding down, threatening to wipe out “the vast majority of the 3600 jobs” (and a corresponding number of votes?). Production of the T-46 would provide continued employment.

Downey exemplified the dove as pork-hawk. Like his colleague Addabbo, he often opposed the Pentagon’s favored projects, but he never failed to support military programs promising jobs and income for his constituents. A paradigmatic “casework congressman,” Downey was willing to ignore the national interest and to forget his ideology when it clashed with the demands of politically active constituents. Though the T-46 eventually went down, it went down with Downey fighting all the way.

On October 16, 1986, congressional conflict over the T-46 program came to a remarkable climax in the Senate. The coalition there included the two New York senators, the two Maryland senators (Fairchild has a facility at Hagerstown), and Sen. Dennis DeConcini (D) from Arizona, where the Garrett Corp. was to build T-46 engines. Besides these five, each of whom had a transparent parochial interest in preserving the troubled trainer, only a handful of senators supported keeping the program alive. But a few can often prevail, especially in the Senate, where the rules allow even a single member to perform miracles of obstruction that induce others to fall into line. Leading the opposition to the T-46 were Goldwater and Sen. Robert Dole, acting on this occasion as the senator from Cessna.

Goldwater fired the first shot, offering an amendment to prohibit spending money for the T-46 either from funds previously appropriated but withheld by the Air Force or from funds under debate for 1987. Opponents let loose a procedural hailstorm. The amendment also faced the impatience of senators who had no particular interest in it but just wanted to pass the spending resolution. The latest of four stopgap funding resolutions that had carried the government into the 1987 fiscal year would expire at midnight, and unless new appropriations were made, the government would have to shut down all nonessential activities and send employees home.

In a last-ditch effort to save the T-46, Senators D’Amato, Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.), and DeConcini waged a filibuster lasting almost 24 hours, and the government did shut down. The workers were sent home on October 17. It has been estimated that such shutdowns cost the government—that is, the taxpayers—some $60 million a day.

Finally, the staffs in the cloakroom arrived at a compromise. It provided that no 1987 money be spent on the T-46 and that the previously appropriated funds could be drawn on to pay for a “fly-off” in which the T-46, the T-37, and any other suitable trainers would compete for the Air Force’s contract. This gave the T-46 a faint hope of survival.

The Air Force subsequently appealed to Congress to release it from the fly-off requirement. Having a competition made no sense when the service no longer planned to procure a new generation of trainers in the next five years. In March 1987, the Air Force and Fairchild announced that they had reached an agreement whereby the service would cap its payments to the company at $159 million, about what had been paid already, and Fairchild would terminate its T-46 line. To cut its losses, Fairchild would close the Long Island plant. “A very black day for Long Island,” lamented Downey, “a human tragedy of the first order.”

In the spring of 1987 the Senate did release the Air Force from the obligation to conduct the fly-off, and this action survived in the final defense bill for 1988-89. But the pork-hawks had extracted a price for their agreement: a total of $300 million previously appropriated but not spent for the T-46 was reallocated to Navy aircraft programs—the EA-6B, the A-6, and the E-2C—all the business of the Grumman Corp. on Long Island. As a House source told Armed Forces Journal International, “The New York delegation is not concerned about the competition. What they were concerned about is what happened to the [T-46] money.”

What should one make of the T-46 story? The program was stopped, a lot of money was saved, the Air Force was rescued from acquiring an airplane it did not want. But several hundred million dollars went down the drain, including the costs of the government shutdown when the T-46 coalition’s filibuster held up passage of a funding act for the entire federal government. And at the end, $300 million was reallocated from Air Force to Navy aircraft in a fashion that, from a military standpoint, can only be called arbitrary and capricious.

Of course, the reallocation made perfect political sense. But that is precisely the point. The whole story illustrates how different and conflicting are the dictates of congressional politics and the dictates of a sensible, economical national defense program.

Wise men say that complaining about Congress is as futile as complaining about the weather. For as long as anyone can remember, members of Congress have been plundering the public to finance the largess they trade for reelection. By now they have nearly perfected their system, as virtually all incumbents who seek reelection are reelected, especially in the House. We are talking about a ruling class that approximates a self-perpetuating group about as closely as one can imagine in a democracy. So perhaps nothing can be done about the mismanagement and waste that attend congressional micromanagement of the defense program.

Some commentators have gone so far as to argue that we should be happy with the system as it is. After all, the guns do shoot some of the time. We do enjoy some national security. And given the institutional realities, it is impossible to imaging a reform that would improve on the existing system, because the reformers would face the same incentives and constraints that got us where we are now. Reforms could only make the situation worse.

Maybe the pessimists are right. Their arguments are certainly weighty. But my hunch is that there remains a chance to alleviate the ills associated with congressional micromanagement of defense.

A necessary condition for pork-barrel defense procurement is acceptance—by members of Congress and by the informed public—of what amounts to treachery. Members of Congress, with only a few exceptions, routinely betray our trust. In pursuit of their very private interest in reelection, they sell out the national defense of the United States. They know they are doing it, their colleagues know they are doing it; and the public, if it pays any attention at all, knows they are doing it. Yet everyone accepts it.

When opinion leaders, and hence the public, start to view these acts of treachery as acts of treachery rather than politics as usual, the incentives will change for members of Congress. They are sensitive to public opinion; they will not continue to act as they do when people view their actions as intolerably reprehensible.

What I am contemplating would amount to ideological change on a fairly wide scale, so it is hardly likely. But ideological changes have occurred in the past, and they may occur again. Until they do, however, Congress will go on micromanaging the defense program for parochial purposes, and the waste will continue. Doves and hawks will coo and shriek, while the pork-hawks bring home the bacon at taxpayer expense.


Robert Higgs is Senior Fellow in Political Economy at The Independent Institute and Editor at Large of the Institute’s quarterly journal The Independent Review. He received his Ph.D. in economics from Johns Hopkins University, and he has taught at the University of Washington, Lafayette College, Seattle University, and the University of Economics, Prague. He has been a visiting scholar at Oxford University and Stanford University, and a fellow for the Hoover Institution and the National Science Foundation. He is the author of many books, including Depression, War, and Cold War.

Full Biography and Recent Publications

Reprinted, with permission, from the June 1989 issue of Reason Magazine. Copyright 1989 by Reason Foundation.

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