Pen­tagon fund nets $2.3B to help re­place ear­marks

Austin American-Statesman - - MORE OF TODAY’S TOP NEWS - By John M. Don­nelly CQ-Roll Call

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.

DREAM­STIME

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.

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