WASHINGTON — Even as its leaders accuse the Clinton administration of failing to fully fund the military's requirements, Congress has larded its $271-billion defense bill with $400 million worth of cargo planes that the Pentagon says will drain money from more urgent needs.
The addition of the seven C-130s extends a long tradition: Since 1978, Congress has added 263 of the workhorse cargo planes to defense spending measures, delighting lawmakers whose districts include the Air National Guard and Air Force Reserve units that have received most of them.
The Pentagon has regarded all of the acquisitions as unnecessary but the mandated spending is particularly painful for them this year. Military leaders have begun complaining loudly that the flat budgets of recent years are proving insufficient to adequately fund the services, maintain military equipment and provide a level of compensation that will lure high-quality troops.
When budgets are generous, "you can cope better with this kind of pork," said one Army officer. But with many field commanders now struggling to cover the costs of routine needs, he said, "this really begins to smell like a pig."
In a letter to Congress, Defense Secretary William S. Cohen singled out the C-130 acquisition as "particularly troubling." The money to finance them will come from "dozens of cuts to programs that our military leaders and I have painstakingly determined to be our nation's most pressing requirements," he wrote the Senate Armed Services Committee.
Despite Cohen's appeal, efforts to knock out the planes met defeat. They are included in the 1999 defense spending bill that will come to final House and Senate votes, probably early next week.
Acquiring more cargo planes appeals to powerful people in Congress for several reasons.
Many Live in Gingrich District
The aircraft are made by Lockheed-Martin in Marietta, Ga., an area with important protectors. Many of its employees live in the congressional district of House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.). In years past, the plant was protected by former Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Sam Nunn (D-Ga.) and other key lawmakers.
The Air National Guard and Air Force Reserve, which have received all but five of the 263 unrequested planes since 1978, are highly influential in Congress. The new cargo planes help them keep their local bases busy, which, in turn, may ward off any perception that the bases should be shuttered in future rounds of military base closings, said John Isaacs, president of the Council for a Livable World, an arms-control group.
Of the seven unrequested planes in the 1999 spending bill, one will go to Keesler Air Force Base in Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott's home state of Mississippi; another will be based at Harrisburg, Pa., in the district of Rep. John P. Murtha, a ranking Democrat on the House Appropriations national security subcommittee.
Four will go to Air National Guard units in Baltimore and two to the Marine Corps. (The bill includes a total of eight C-130s; only one was requested by the administration.)
First built in the Eisenhower years, the C-130 was designed for a primary mission of hauling troops in combat theaters in wartime. But its no-frills design has made it suitable for dropping supplies to disaster victims, fighting forest fires and--when equipped with meteorological devices--gathering information on hurricanes.
Advocates for the C-130 purchases argue that air reservists should be equipped with only the best. The C-130 "does a job and it does it well," Rep. C.W. "Bill" Young (R-Fla.), chairman of the House Appropriations national security subcommittee, recently told Congressional Quarterly.
But Air Force officials said the new planes will take the place of older aircraft that still have many hours of flight time left.
Military Must Divert Money
Since Congress has not picked up the cost of spare parts and maintenance, the military will have to divert money from other accounts to keep the new aircraft operational, officials said.
Some lawmakers are blunter in their judgments. Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said he considers it "kind of sad" that Congress is mandating the acquisitions when the military's accounts for operations and maintenance are expected to fall several hundred million dollars short this fiscal year.
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), another member of the Armed Services Committee, said the repeated additions of unneeded C-130s is "fiscally irresponsible in the extreme."
"We are buying enough of them to house all the homeless in brand new fuselages," McCain complained in a speech on the Senate floor.
The administration and the congressional leadership appear to be moving in the direction of boosting defense budgets, which have been held flat for two years by budget caps.
After a meeting with the uniformed leadership last week, President Clinton on Wednesday formally asked Congress for another $1 billion in defense spending for next year and signaled that the administration will consider larger requests for following years.
Congressional leaders have said that they want to use anticipated budget surpluses to increase defense outlays.
But analysts said that the disagreement over the C-130 acquisitions illustrates the need for a new debate on spending priorities.
To critics of pork-barrel spending, the pending $271-billion measure is riddled with waste. Defense reformers, meanwhile, believe that billions of dollars are wasted on outmoded or unneeded weapons built for Cold War confrontations that will never take place.
And a wide variety of analysts and top defense officials agree that many more billions are squandered on maintaining far-flung military bases that ought to be closed but remain open because they have powerful protectors in Congress.