Pentagon fund nets $2.3B to help replace earmarks
WASHINGTON — The Pentagon will soon have received about $2.3 billion in the past nine years — money the military never requested — for a special fund intended to help replace earmarks after Congress banned them, our analysis shows.
Buried deep inside the $674.4 billion defense spending measure for fiscal 2019 that the Senate is expected to vote on this week is a chart with one line showing a $250 million appropriation for the Defense Rapid Innovation Fund, the latest installment of sizable funding for a largely unknown program that quietly disburses scores of contracts every year.
To supporters, the fund is a way to bankroll innovative systems that the military may not yet know it needs. To critics, the fund is just earmarking by another name.
The kinds of systems that net contracts from the innovation fund run the gamut. In fiscal 2016, they included programs to demonstrate artificial intelligence systems for aerial drones, antilock brakes for Humvees and underwater communications systems for undersea drones.
The systems may be technologies for which the military services have not yet established a requirement because they may not know what is technically possible. It is not clear how many of the systems actually become operational.
The defense fund’s eclipsing of the $2 billion mark comes as debate heats up in Washington over whether to revive earmarks. And the special account highlights key elements of that debate.
Earmarks have generally been defined as parochial spending, directed by lawmakers and received by people who have not competed for it.
In 2011, after earmarks were tied to several scandals and spending projects seen as excess, Congress barred them — or at least a narrow definition of them, critics contend, noting that, among other loopholes, committees could still add money for parochial projects without spelling out who supports them.
President Donald Trump suggested earlier this year that a return of earmarks, which were often used in horsetrading for votes, might be beneficial.
The House’s top Democrat, Minority Leader Steny Hoyer of Maryland, has suggested he would aim to bring back earmarks if his party takes control of the House next year. The senior Democrat on Senate Appropriations, Patrick Leahy of Vermont, has also supported a comeback for the practice. Republican leaders are less vocal right now, but many of them also support a return to earmarks.
“I don’t doubt that the next organizing conference for the next Congress will probably wrestle with this issue,” outgoing House Speaker Paul Ryan told reporters earlier this month.
The Defense Rapid Innovation Fund was launched in 2010 in the fiscal 2011 defense authorization law. It was a way to capture what proponents called the innovative spirit of programs called earmarks that were clearly about to be banned.
Unlike earmarks, the defense fund’s money would be competitively awarded by the Pentagon, not directed by Congress, supporters of the idea pointed out.
Democrat Norm Dicks, then a senior defense appropriator, and other advocates of the program described it at the time as a way to capture the innovation among smaller companies, including many who had received earmarks.
Each year since its creation, the fund has received another installment of funds, never less than $175 million or more than $439 million.
For fiscal 2019, the Pentagon again declined to request money for the program. The Senate Appropriations Committee also did not include funds for it. The House Appropriations Committee added the $250 million, and the House-Senate conference writing the final bill went along.
Buried inside the $674.4 billion defense spending measure that the Senate is expected to vote on this week is one line showing a $250 million appropriation for the Defense Rapid Innovation Fund.