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Passing the pork; the Pentagon's blueprint for lobbying Congress.



In January 1983 the Pentagon submitted a budget of $239 billion to the Congress, an increase of 14 percent over the previous year. Because programs outside defense were being cut under "Reaganomics' and stories about Pentagon waste had begun to shock Congress and the public, there were many predictions that it was the Department of Defense's turn to endure some serious trimming.

The year before, Caspar Weinberger, the secretary of defense, told the Senate Budget Committee that there "was not one ounce of fat' in the defense budget. Congress appeared to be fed up with that unrealistic appraisal and ready to make some reforms and reduce the increase in the defense budget. However, then-Senator John Tower, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, who opposed any reduction in the budget increase, knew how to silence the cries for any serious scaleback of the continual increase in the money flowing to the Pentagon.

Tower sent a letter in February 1983 to all of his colleagues in the Senate telling them he was under a lot of pressure to cut the increase in the defense budget and asking them to give him suggestions of things that should be cut from their own state. The senator understood the patronage "pork-barrel' system of the Pentagon budget well and knew that he would get few responses. He did receive a couple of responses from the hundred senators. Senators Charles Grassley and David Pryor rose to the challenge, but none of the well-known liberal critics of the defense budget did.

Senator Tower's exercise demonstrated the major problems in trying to keep the defense budget under control and in canceling weapons that don't work. Over the past 20 years, as the entitlement programs have taken more and more of the federal budget, the defense budget has become the best means of patronage spending. Members of Congress have become very protective of the large defense contractors in their states or districts, mainly because of the jobs these companies provide. They will work very hard to make sure that their companies and the products made in their state and district are well represented in the Pentagon budget.

I have often heard from officials inside the Defense Department that part of the problem of procurement is that the Congress forces companies and weapons on the Pentagon that it does not want. Yet I have also found that these same procurement people are more than willing to use this pork-barrel system to ensure funding of their own weapon program, no matter how badly it is performing. In this three-ring circus of defense contractors, the Pentagon, and Congress, each uses the others to help spread the money around, but each is quick to blame another when a scandal is uncovered.

I was fortunate to receive from a source probably one of the best-documented cases of how the pork-barrel circus works to the benefit of the parties involved but to the detriment of the taxpayer and national security. It was a computerized lobbying plan used by the Defense Department, Air Force, and Lockheed to force through another run of the notorious C-5 cargo plane. You may remember that in the late 1960s Ernie Fitzgerald testified that the C-5 program had run $2 billion over its budget; a year later he was fired for that testimony. I fell into the defense investigating business in 1980 when I investigated the C-5A wing fix for the National Taxpayers Union. Thus, it was hard to believe that Lockheed would be taken seriously in the fall of 1981 when it entered the competition for a new cargo plane to be called the C-X.

Son of C-5

Lockheed was offering an up-to-date version of the C-5, but the Air Force was looking for a smaller, more maneuverable cargo plane that could land on unimproved runways, would not take up as much space of the ground, and would still be able to carry outsized cargo such as tanks and heavy artillery. It appeared to me and to some of my contacts in the Pentagon that the Air Force was once again asking its cargo planes to accomplish highly unrealistic missions, such as delivering tanks to the battlefield.

Nevertheless, the Air Force held a competition for the C-X cargo plane, and on August 26, 1981, McDonnell Douglas Corporation emerged the winner. Lockheed did not take the loss lightly and on September 14 gave the Air Force an unsolicited proposal to update the C-5. All fall, memoranda written by airlift experts that were circulated in the Air Force and the Department of Defense insisted that the C-X (now called the C-17) was a better plane.

To my surprise, on January 20, 1982, the Defense Department leaked to the press the news that they would buy Lockheed's new C-5, designated as the C-5B. It did not seem logical that the Air Force, after heralding the C-17 so widely in Congress, would want to have an updated version of one of its most embarrassing procurements. After discussing the matter with Ernie Fitzgerald, who was as surprised as I was, I came to the conclusion that the decision must have been made by the Defense Department as a political bailout for Lockheed.

Our hunch was right: the airlift community was not happy with the political decision to buy the C-5B. Soon a member of the airlift staff contacted me. He was uncertain what I could do and somewhat suspicious of my motivation, but after a few discussions we established a working relationship. I received many of the memoranda that had been sent from the Air Force people to the airlift decision-makers pleading not to bring the C-5 back. One general wrote that the maintenance cost per flying hour of the C-5 was the highest in the Air Force and that, although the C-5 was only 1 percent of the airlift capacity, it used up 14 percent of the spare parts budget. Another general reported that when a C-5 landed at his European air base it clogged the runway because there was no place to park it and it interfered with the peacetime operations of the base.

But the most significant document was a briefing Air Force Secretary Verne Orr had given to Deputy Secretary of Defense Frank Carlucci on January 8, 1982, which showed that the C-5 had a very bad maintenance record, that the new version would have the same trouble on the runways, and that Lockheed's proposal had "no enforceable reliability or maintainability warranties.' Orr urged Carlucci to stay with the C-17. Yet days later, after the Defense Department let it be known it was going with the C-5B, Secretary Orr publicly pushed for the plane.

About that time, another monkey wrench was thrown into the airlift debate. On March 17, 1982, the Boeing Company sent an unsolicited proposal to the Defense Department offering to sell either new or used 747 cargo planes to the government for a much lower price than the new C-5Bs. It was unusual for another defense contractor to challenge a Defense Department decision. So the debate shifted from whether we should buy C-5Bs or C-17s to the C-5B versus the 747 cargo plane. The high-ranking military men who were so upset at the prospect of the C-5 were even more upset with the idea of purchasing the 747s because of their traditional opposition to buying anything commercial for military use, so they publicly rallied around the C-5B. But my airlift "underground,' which was concerned with getting a reliable and supportable airlift capability, was not against the idea and continued to leak me documents showing that the 747 could do the job despite what the Air Force maintained.

Besides being half the cost, the 747 had other advantages over the C-5B: it was far more reliable, could take off from shorter runways, and could carry a third-larger payload. Also, once Congress began debating which plane to choose, Boeing made the unprecedented offer of guaranteeing the 20-year life-cycle costs of the 747. This was a blow to the argument for the C-5B because of its extremely expensive and unreliable history of maintenance. Guaranteeing the life cycle costs is common in the commercial airplane business but unheard of in military plane business because the Pentagon does not insist on it the way the free market does. But Boeing probably felt that they could make this attractive offer because they had been flying and maintaining the cargo version of the 747 all over the world for years and knew what the cost would be.

The 747's best friend was the powerful late Senator Henry Jackson of Washington state, where Boeing has its national headquarters. The C-5B also had powerful members behind it, including Senator Sam Nunn of Georgia, where the C-5B was to be built. Senator Jackson, however, had the most political clout, and, to the astonishment of the Defense Department and the Air Force, the Senate voted 60 to 30 on May 13, 1982 to buy the 747 instead of the C-5B. It was clearly a case where the right decision for the national defense and the taxpayer was made for the wrong reason--pork-barrel politics. In any event, the Air Force and the Department of Defense were in disarray because the vote in the House of Representatives was approaching, and they did not know whether the 747-Jackson forces could win again.

In the middle of June, one of my sources called to tell me that he had heard that the Air Force, the Defense Department, and Lockheed were meeting to plan a strategy to see that the C-5B won the airlift vote in the House. It was at least a gross conflict of interest if not illegal. I called Fitzgerald, and he agreed with me that it was improper for the Air Force and the Defense Department to be involved with Lockheed in this manner. I called my source and asked him if he could get me a list of who was attending these meetings. If I could prove that these types of meetings were going on, I could take the story to the Congress and the press. The source called back in a few days and told me to meet him on a street corner in a small town in suburban Virginia.

The big leak

As my husband and I drove to the meeting spot, I had no idea of the magnitude of the document I was about to receive. The source appeared unusually nervous when we pulled up and I jumped out of the car. He pulled a three-inch thick manila envelope out of his briefcase and handed it to me. I knew from the weight of the envelope that it was not just a list of people attending the meetings. He did not want me to look at it on the street or discuss it with him there and he appeared anxious to move on. So I told him I would call him later.

As we drove away, I opened the envelope and began reading. I could hardly believe may eyes. "This is big,' I told my husband as we wound our way back to Capitol Hill.

The computer printout of the lobby plan that I received was 96 pages long and broken down into two sections. The first section consisted of an "action/status' report describing the tasks that Lockheed, Air Force, and Defense personnel (called the C-5B group)--who met three or four times a week--were to carry out. This was the group that my airlift underground had told me about. The second section was a list of members of the House of Representatives broken down by military committees and another list of the rest of the representatives.

Before me was probably one of the best-documented cases of how the political procurement system inside the Pentagon works and what the Pentagon must do to get a controversial weapon through Congress. There was little on the substantive issues of airlift, but rather material on how to use the pork-barrel to influence Congress for the benefit of a contractor's program. According to the plan, the contractor, Lockheed, the Defense Department, and the Air Force would work hand-in-hand, trading assets and connections each had in Congress. They planned to engage the services of such "heavy hitters' as four-star generals, Senate Majority Leader Howard Baker, the mayor of Atlanta, the secretary of the air force, the deputy secretary of defense, and even President Reagan. This C-5B group was not about to lose this lucrative contract for Lockheed.

(Examples of the first section of the lobby plan, dated June 14, 1982, include the excerpts on page 28.)

The big lie

The second part of the lobby plan, a carefully annotated list of members of Congress, revealed how the weapons procurement old-boy network works. Many have speculated on these unofficial relationships, but rarely has the public been given a glimpse into the backroom maneuvering of the U.S. Congress when it deals with the military-industrial complex. The position of each member of Congress was listed, along with the subcontractors who do business in his district, other members of Congress favorable to Lockheed who might influence him, and further actions necessary to ensure this member's vote for the C-5B (see excerpts on page 30).

Even Fitzgerald, who though he had seen it all, was impressed with the scope of the lobby plan. Several of my underground advisers reinforced my belief that the plan was a major find, and one of them encouraged me to release it with an embargo. I gave the plan to four reporters and sat back to see what the Defense Department explanation would be. I suspected that many members of Congress would feign outrage, even though some of them were well aware that this type of activity was common in Congress. I expected stony silence from the Pentagon.

TheAir Force, however, was unabashed in its response. Consider this account from The Washington Post:

"Air Force Lt. Gen. Kelly H. Burke, who is responsible for the proposed C-5 program, said yesterday: "You're just wrong if you think this is a highly unusual happening. Anytime you get competing views, it's customary for the government to work with those contractors whose views are congruent with the president's . . ..

""I do not want to sound platitudinous, but all you're seeing is democracy in action. This is the way the system is supposed to work.''

The problem with this and other Pentagon explanations is that the military claimed that it had arrived at the C-5B solution only after careful scientific study of all the airlift choices. The documents that the airlift underground supplied showed just the opposite. As the memos revealed, Air Force Secretary Verne Orr strongly urged Deputy Defense Secretary Frank Carlucci on January 8 not to go with the C-5B; the decision was made to go with that plane a few days later.

The people involved in the lobby effort did not see anything wrong with it and felt their work was "democracy in action,' business-as-usual. It was a good illustration of how the contractor's and the Pentagon's priority became the same: to give Lockheed more work for its idle plant in Georgia. The national security consideration of getting the most effective airlift or sealift for the least money to make sure our troops were well supplied fell by the wayside.

But the more frustrating end to this story is that the lobby plan worked. After all the disclosures about the C-5 and the release of the documents leaked by the underground, which showed the Pentagon and the contractor were manipulating Congress through an elaborate pork-barrel scheme, the House voted on July 21, 1982, 289 to 127, for the C-5B. The Senate later added its approval of a $10 billion program based on pork-barrel influences instead of on the real need for national defense at the best price.

Bringing home the bacon

Several members of Congress, some of whom were on the other side of the C-5B debate, were upset by the lobby plan. Rep. Jack Brooks, chairman of the House Government Operations Committee, called for an investigation by the General Accounting Office (GAO). The House Armed Services Subcommittee on Investigations announced that it would hold its own hearings on the legality of the plan. During these hearings the Air Force and Lockheed officials once again proclaimed they had done nothing illegal or improper. They admitted they had worked together and compared notes on their congressional contacts but claimed their actions were not wrong. Their denials were similar to those reported in the papers after the lobby plan became public. It was revealed in the hearings, however, that the lobby plan was the brainchild of Lawrence O. Kitchens, the president of Lockheed, who was present at many of the C-5B group hearings.

The GAO called for the Justice Department to investigate four top-ranking officials in the Air Force and the DOD for possible criminal violation of the antilobbying law. They were Major General Guy Hecker, director of the Air Force Office of Legislative Liaison; Russell Rourke, assistant secretary of defense for legislative affairs; Frank Carlucci, deputy secretary of defense, who was the number-two person in the Office of the Secretary of Defense; and Verne Orr, secretary of the air force. I was surprised that the GAO investigators, and especially their bosses, would go so far as to point the finger at such high-ranking officials, especially since Rourke, Carlucci, and Orr were presidential appointees. Usually controversial investigations implicate only the lowest-ranking people in the bureaucracy to avoid the political heat of naming high officials.

To my frustration, the Justice Department let the case sit until the end of February 1983 and then decided to close it. A justice Department spokesman told Bob Adams of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that "the decision had been made because "no prosecutable violation' of the federal anti-lobbying statutes had been found.'

Evidently the Justice Department did not try very hard to find evidence. A GAO official told Adams that Justice did not ask to see the GAO's backup documents or call anyone on the investigation team.

By then Congress and, for the most part, the press had moved on to new investigations and scandals. After the Justice Department's announcement, several members of Congress promised reform and new legislation. Secretary Weinberger had written new guidelines for the legislative people in the Pentagon to avoid an "appearance' of improper cooperation with contractors, but my underground reported to me that those involved in the lobby plan were telling everyone that they were "vindicated' and that it was back to business-as-usual.

Needless to say, the people who had worked so hard and taken so many risks to get the real airlift story to the public were extremely disillusioned. I can't help believing, however, that public disclosure of these practices made the officials more careful about such business-as-usual activities and also made the public more aware of how and why our weapons are procured.

Cases such as this one happen every year with other weapons; they just rarely receive any attention. Every year the Pentagon sends a budget to Congress and with it comes a horde of industry lobbyists. It is not by accident that many of the largest defense contractors are located in the states of the prominent members of the Armed Services and Appropriations committees. In many cases, a member of Congress, because of his influence, has brought defense plants or bases to his state, or he had lobbied to be on defense committees to help protect the defense economy on which so many of his constituents' jobs are based. This system has been building since World War II, and the constituents of a district or state have continued to reward members of Congress who "bring home the bacon' of defense contracts.
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Author:Rasor, Dina
Publication:Washington Monthly
Date:Dec 1, 1985
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