The Wastrels of Defense
Winslow Wheeler,
US Naval Institute Press 2004
267 pp., including notes

Reviewed by Chet Richards,
Defense and the National Interest

November 25, 2004

David Macaulay has made a career from books on The Way Things Work that explain everything from dental drills to computer chips. Now veteran Senate staffer Winslow Wheeler joins him with a book that could be The Way Your Government (Really) Works. Unlike Macaulay, however, whose expositions of complex gadgetry amaze, delight, and amuse, Wheeler offers a look at Congress that will amaze you, but your delight and amusement may be limited when you realize that it’s your money, your kids' and grandkids' quality of life, and possibly the health and well-being of your friends, neighbors and even your relatives that these guys and gals are wastreling away.

Wheeler knows whereof he speaks. A member of the Senate staff for 30 years, serving four (Republican) senators as well as doing a tour at the GAO, when Wheeler is enumerating pork, he speaks from admitted experience. When he relates how former Senator Jacob Javits wrestled with formulating the War Powers Act, he radiates credibility because he was a Javits staffer at the time.

As most of you are aware, the Framers of the Constitution, in their efforts to improve an inadequate Articles of Confederation, spent a lot of time worrying about what powers the central government should have and how these powers should be distributed among the branches so that government could perform its essential functions but not threaten the people's liberties. The solution they devised was the system of checks-and-balances familiar to every American high school civics student. Wheeler’s thesis is that after 217 years, that system no longer works.

What he means is that Congress has given up so much of its constitutional power to the executive branch that our system of government has settled into a stable state where Congress is a spectator to – rather than a check upon – presidential power. As Wheeler takes pains to point out, the dollar amounts wasted in pork are not the problem but more of a red herring. In FY 2005, pork, that is items placed into the DoD budget by members of Congress, amount to something like $8.5 - $10 billion, which sounds like serious money until you realize that it’s shoveled on top of a defense budget that will approach $500 billion (including the costs of Iraq and Afghanistan.) And yes, much of that money is coming out of the O&M (operations and maintenance) accounts and so will shortchange our troops of many of the low-tech but essential items they need to survive and do their jobs. This is a travesty, surely, but it’s where the money is transferred from, not the amount of pork, per se, that is the problem.

And why is it coming out of O&M? Because that’s the easiest place to get it. O&M consists of thousands of small accounts that typically don’t have strong advocates to lobby for them, only the troops whose lives may depend on them. Companies that make bolts and washers don’t contribute to political campaigns like companies that make fighters or ships, and they can’t provide after-retirement jobs with impressive titles and corner offices to retired staffers and colonels who have played the game.  This practice, known as the "revolving door," is perfectly legal if done correctly.

wastrel  n : someone who dissipates resources self-indulgently [syn: waster]

Source: WordNet ® 2.0, © 2003 Princeton University

The game is “keep the money flowing.” For our non-American visitors, I should point out that every member of the House of Representatives has to finance a reelection campaign every two years, and every senator faces such a campaign every six years. Millions of dollars are involved in each of these, and the candidates must raise it all (really).  Pork plays a key role by ensuring PAC and other contributions from beneficiaries and future aspirants, as well as from the publicity that a new DoD program in one’s district provides.

What makes the system stable is what senators and representatives have to do to get their share. Basically, they have to support the existing system or that system will not reward the member when time comes to ladle out pork or choose candidates for the next primary. The system, though, is more than mutual backscratching in the quest for handouts. Members have to demonstrate their loyalty by supporting critical decisions by congressional leaders, the most important of which is the determination of when to employ American military forces. As Wheeler reminds us, the question of when the president can go to war and for how long and what type of authorization he needs, if any, goes all the way back to the debates of the Constitutional Convention in 1787. Since the Tonkin Gulf Resolution under Lyndon Johnson, power over war has shifted strongly to the executive branch, ironically in ways that the framers envisioned might happen and went to great lengths to try to prevent. Despite a small setback under Nixon (due more to his political bungling than any desire to respect the Constitution), this shift continued under George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton, and has reached what appears to be the end state under George W. Bush.

On October 2, 2002, the president requested and on October 10 received congressional authority to go to war with Iraq at the time of his choosing, on whatever grounds he found adequate, and with or without allied support. Congress abandoned its duty to deliberate a declaration of war, or even think cogently about the “specific statutory authorization” required under the War Powers Act. Not one word of the draft sent over by the White House was changed by either the House or the Senate, despite issues with the rationale that were even then becoming apparent. Congressional leaders, for reasons Wheeler enumerates, handed the administration a blank check and then went back to playing their version of trivial pursuit.

By the end of the book, you will be mad as hell. What can you do? Honestly, nothing. Wheeler provides a list of 12 eminently reasonable suggestions that might work – he is after all the expert.  Implementing them, however, will require legislative jihadists willing to martyr themselves and their districtsfundingwiseto force change, perhaps. I cannot, for example, feel Wheeler's outrage at Sen John McCain who rails against pork and tabulates long lists of member-inserted projects, but refuses to bring the Senate to its knees (which Wheeler makes an impressive case that he could do) to stop them. Why be Senator Quixote, especially since there is no sign that the citizens of Arizona want him to do it?

I’ve known Win Wheeler for years – readers should take this into account – am fully convinced by the case he has made, and earnestly hope that his solutions would work. He is a non-partisan berserker for the Constitution, indicting Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives. He names them and gives the dates that they engaged in their acts of commission and more frequently omission. It is an ironclad case. But we could vote them all out tomorrow, and within a generation or so, a new Winslow Wheeler could write the same book. Until we eliminate the corrupting influence of campaign financing, close the revolving door (a recommendation he does make), and perhaps institute term limits (2 terms doesn’t seem to have hurt executive power), the system will continue to be The System and The System is the problem. The only higher sovereignty that could rein in this mess is the people. Anybody want to join me in a call for a new Constitutional Convention, as authorized under Article V of the current one (assuming anybody is still paying any attention to the current one)?

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Read Comment #527.