Copyright (c) 2002 U.S. News & World Report, L.P. All rights reserved. Republished with permission.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein was in full voice. "Given the events of the past few weeks, and the events that we expect to unfold over the coming weeks and months, this bill could not be more timely," declared the chairwoman of the Senate Subcommittee on Military Construction. Fifteen days earlier, al Qaeda terrorists had attacked the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Now it was time to focus on George W. Bush's defense budget. "Our men and women in uniform," Feinstein said, arguing for her bill, "cannot afford any delay in getting these projects underway."

But what projects? Among the 120 new items in the final military construction bill was $71 million for Feinstein's home state. They included $50.6 million for environmental cleanup at Hunters Point Naval Shipyard, $5.9 million for a new barracks complex at Monterey's Defense Language Institute, and $7.2 million for a new fire and crash station at March Air Force Reserve Base, near Riverside. Included also was $71 million in add-ons for Texas, home of Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, the ranking Republican member of the committee. The money would buy air-conditioning upgrades at a naval air station, a new gym at an air base, and a water-treatment plant at Fort Bliss, near El Paso. Feinstein says that all such additions were requested by the military. "Environmental cleanup of a hazardous site is not pork," she says.

The haul. Perhaps, but there was plenty in that bill and two bigger defense-spending measures approved by Congress that would seem to qualify. There was $8.4 million for a celestial observatory in New Mexico, $3 million for a new public-health laboratory in Las Vegas, and the acceptance of an estimated $50 million in liability for pollution caused by the Homestake Mine in Lead, S.D. The Army was also forced to spend $2 million to buy nitrocellulose from a New Jersey company in danger of going bust. All told, Citizens Against Government Waste, a congressional watchdog group, toted up $8.8 billion of congressional add-ons to the $318 billion defense bill. "You don't have to be a pork expert," says Citizens' Vice President David Williams, "to realize that this stuff is not crucial to the nation's defense needs." With the massive Pentagon budget augmented by $17 billion more in supplemental war funding this year, the opportunities for lawmakers to bring home the bacon were greater than ever.

The old saw about the making of sausage and the making of legislation is apt: It ain't pretty, but it's not that complicated either. Members of Congress, besieged with requests from constituents, formalize the ones they like into something called "member request" letters. These then go to a series of subcommittees and committees, whose members are continually lobbied by colleagues and their staffers to get items included in legislation. In both the House and the Senate, three separate defense bills–military construction, defense authorization, and appropriations–work their way toward approval at the same time. For some lawmakers, even the authorization bills, which are supposed to deal with policy and programs, hold opportunity. A fair amount of dollar-specific pork gets inserted into them. Additionally, savvy solons know it's easier to get money for a project if it has previously been "authorized."

The projects get paid for in all sorts of ways. Sometimes they get added on to the president's requested budget, in the hope he will live with it. (Last year's military construction bill, for example, was increased from $9.971 billion to $10.5 billion.) In other cases, Congress steals a bit here and there from the president's proposed projects. Then Congress can just get cute: It arbitrarily decided, one insider says, that the value of the dollar would rise vis-à-vis foreign currencies for spending on overseas projects. That freed up a cool $60 million.

The process also works the other way, with the Pentagon coming to Congress with its own wish lists. These, in the parlance of appropriations, are called "UFRs," or unfunded requirements. Translation: Pentagon brass couldn't get certain items into the president's defense bill, so they ask Congress to do it. Every year, at least a few UFRs make it into the bills reported out of committee to be voted on by the House and the Senate.

Priorities. The bills then go to a conference committee to be reconciled by lawmakers from the two chambers. The conference is composed of the chairs of the subcommittees and several senior members from both sides of the aisle. In the Capitol, the chairs are known as "cardinals." Only they can perform a feat known among congressional theologians as an "immaculate conception." That's when a brand-new item is added into a bill, one that has not previously been seen or heard of in the House or theSenate. Just before they voted to approve the tanker-lease deal between Boeing and the Air Force last year, House conferees added four Boeing 737s for VIP–read, Pentagon brass and themselves–transportation. Typical of most immaculate conceptions, it's difficult to figure out who added the 737s, because the whole process happened behind closed doors.

After the conference committee concludes its work, a single copy of its report is delivered to the Senate and the House cloakrooms. Then, before anyone has time to study it, it's time to vote. This time, the process didn't end with the passage of the defense bills. On March 21, the White House sent Congress a brand-new $27 billion supplemental spending plan, of which $14 billion was for defense. Already, lawmakers are plotting to add numerous items of their own.

And then it's on to next year's bills. Last week, a subcommittee of the House Armed Services Committee added $3.2 billion in items to the $70.2 billion procurement part of the 2003 defense budget. "I would have liked to have added more," subcommittee Chairman Rep. Curt Weldon, a Pennsylvania Republican, told reporters. But first he had to deal with the Pentagon's UFR lists and $14 billion of additional requests by lawmakers.

With Ann M. Wakefield

Other articles in this series:

The Spartacus Report: Mr. Smith Is Dead—No One Stands in the Way as Congress Laces Post-September 11 Defense Bills with Pork

War profiteering: Cashing in on the post-9/11 defense build-up

Wages of sin: Why lawbreakers still win government contracts

Sizing up the 2002 races 


US News & World Report
Cover Story 5/13/02

The pork game

Even after 9/11, Congress's priorities are unchanged

By Peter Cary