WASHINGTON -- The Pentagon tried to sneak dubious spending proposals past Congress this year, but the wily lawmakers weren't fooled -- they've scrapped the questionable items and are replacing them with some of their own.
They deemed personal Pentagon trains, surplus ceremonial gunpowder shells and war-fighting television stations to be excessive -- but not a $5 million building for the Solomon Islands' 38-member Parliament.
And not a $100,000 study on how to protect people in New Mexico from falling space capsules, nor requiring the biggest U.S. base in Europe to use U.S. coal to heat its buildings.
Some of the sternly worded language in the reports of the Senate and House defense appropriations subcommittees actually seem to make sense. For example, the Senate panel took away the personal train of Gen. John R. Galvin, who commands all NATO forces in Europe.
"The existence of such a command asset may have been justified many years ago when travel to and from Berlin was difficult and expensive," the panel said. "However, considering that Germany has been unified and East-West tensions have significantly lessened, the continued existence of a special train for the commander-in-chief of Europe is unnecessary."
The subcommittees also cut $6 million for 181,000 105mm "blank ceremonial cartridges" used to boom cannons in honor of dead U.S. presidents and visiting dignitaries. "The ammunition is excess to normal training and saluting requirements, and existing inventories are sufficient for several more years," the subcommittee said.
The Army disagreed. "We've got a lot of living ex-presidents, some of them are going to die pretty soon, and we've got to be ready," one Army official argued.
The Senate panel also eliminated $3 million the Pentagon wanted to spend on "mobile psychological operations transmitters" -- portable TV stations to give U.S. forces a combat edge.
"If theater commanders-in-chief believe a mobile radio, color video and mobile news gathering capability are essential for successful war-fighting, the committee suggests the funds for such efforts compete for scarce resources with the tanks, aircraft, ships, ordnance, and spares in the rest of the defense budget," the panel said.
But after saving taxpayers all that money, the panels have spent much of it elsewhere -- like the $100,000 study to protect residents of New Mexico from falling space hardware.
The Senate panel has ordered the study "to initiate safety, population risk, and environmental assessments of the White Sands missile range near Las Cruces, N.M., to demonstrate the safety and feasibility of the land recovery of unmanned re-entry capsules from orbit," its report said.
As for the $5 million Parliament building in the Solomons, an independent island nation 1,000 miles northeast of Australia, there was no written explanation why U.S. taxpayers should foot the bill.
No one on Capitol Hill protects home states and districts more vigorously than do the appropriations committees, which have a firmer grasp on the Treasury's purse strings than does any other congressional committee. Certain states -- generally those represented by senior members of the committees -- repeatedly get favored treatment.
Perhaps none of the fiscal favors are as bold as one put forward by the coal caucus, a band of West Virginia and Pennsylvania lawmakers. The Senate committee is chaired by Sen. Robert C. Byrd, D-W.Va., and the senior members of the House defense subcommittee are Representative John P. Murtha, Democratic chairman, and Representative Joseph M. McDade, senior Republican, both from Pennsylvania's coal country.
The Senate panel wondered why the Pentagon "continues to rely on imported fuel at a time when world instability is causing wide fluctuations in price and availability."
The panel's answer: Ship U.S. coal to Germany. "The U.S. coal industry should be in a position to provide cost-effective heat to the American installations in the Kaiserslautern military community" in Germany -- whose 69,000 Americans constitute the largest U.S. community outside the United States -- the report said.
The panel didn't insist that the Pentagon use U.S. coal -- it simply barred all other options. "The provision prohibits the purchase of foreign coal or coke when American coal is available and prohibits conversion of heating plants from coal to oil or natural gas," it said.