House Armed Services ranking member Duncan Hunter tried to persuade the White House Wednesday to drop objections to a provision in the FY09 defense authorization bill that would shield the measure from a recent executive order against earmarks.
The issue pits Republicans and Democrats on the committee against the White House and anti-earmark forces in the House who view the provision as a way to sidestep efforts to boost transparency for parochial or special-interest spending items.
Specifically, the disputed provision exempts the annual defense policy bill from an executive order signed by President Bush in February ordering executive branch agencies not to "commit, obligate or expend" funds for earmarks in committee report language as well as for any purpose the agencies deem not to have merit.
But panel members, including Hunter, argue that the provision in the bill is necessary and represents a long-standing practice by the committee to put earmark language in the committee report, rather than in the bill text. Hunter supported the practice when he was chairman.
Keeping specific spending allocations out of the bill, aides have said, gives the Defense Department more flexibility to reprogram funds as needed within each of its many budget accounts.
Hunter called OMB Wednesday morning to discuss the matter. He said work to change the law "makes no sense," particularly during a time of war, when the Defense Department's needs change throughout the year.
"They're going to destroy their own flexibility," Hunter said.
OMB Director Nussle on Wednesday called the provision "veto bait." But the Bush administration had not released its formal Statement of Administration Policy on the bill by the time the House began general debate on the measure Wednesday night.
Meanwhile, Rep. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., an outspoken foe of congressional earmarks, drafted an amendment to the authorization bill that would erase the provision. But the House Rules Committee, which met late Wednesday to consider more than 100 proposed amendments to the measure, did not rule it in order.
Flake said earlier Wednesday that the Armed Services Committee's claims of flexibility "ought to be treated with appropriate skepticism." He added that he is concerned that placing the earmarks in the committee report seriously limits congressional oversight of the add-ons.
Indeed, members of the Armed Services Committee were not given a list of the earmarks before their marathon markup of the defense bill last week.
Committee members received the bill text and the directive language in the report before the markup, Hunter said. But the committee does not release tables detailing individual programs, including member-requested spending add-ons, because it would cause a "maelstrom" within the defense industry and the Pentagon, he said.
Hunter emphasized that any member can ask the committee staff to see the detailed tables before the markup. The tables are now publicly available in the committee's report on the bill.
The Rules Committee ruled 58 amendments to the bill in order, including language sponsored by Rep. Trent Franks, R-Ariz., that would restore $719 million in funding cut from the Pentagon's request for missile defense programs.
But instead of restoring budgets for the riskier missile defense programs cut by the Armed Services Committee, the Franks amendment would boost funding for near-term projects favored by Democrats. Those include Theater High-Altitude Area Defense and Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense.
Rep. Todd Akin, R-Mo., will offer an amendment on the floor that would restore most of the $200 million cut from the Army's Future Combat Systems program. Boeing manages the program in St. Louis, near Akin's district.
The Rules Committee rejected a Hunter amendment that would limit the foreign content on the Air Force's next aerial refueling tanker to 15 percent of the aircraft's parts.
The Air Force stunned the defense industry this year when it awarded the contract for the $35 billion program to Northrop Grumman and EADS, the European consortium behind Airbus, instead of choosing Boeing Co., the domestic aerospace giant. A Boeing protest of the award is pending with GAO.
This article appears in the May 24, 2008, edition of NJ Daily.