Drive to reduce arms spending likely to undercut traditional pork-barreling

February 06, 1992|By Richard H. P. Sia | Richard H. P. Sia,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- Caught between an ever-tightening squeeze on Pentagon spending and mounting election-year pressures to protect hometown defense jobs, legislators and congressional aides are wrestling with a hard reality: The rules of pork-barrel politics are changing.

The old lobbying strategies, which depend heavily on building large coalitions of state delegations, defense contractors, labor unions and military retirees, have weakened in recent years. The ability of powerful committee chairmen to cut sizable deals in the defense budget at the behest of particular colleagues has become more constrained as well.

Accommodating projects of "special interest" to lawmakers "will get harder to do," observed James Pratt, spokesman for Senate Budget Committee Chairman Jim Sasser, a Tennessee Democrat.

"The senator has been making the rounds, saying that if we don'tbegin making bigger cuts in defense and eliminate big-ticket items, we're not going to meet our caps [budget targets] and do things domestically that need to be done," he said.

Rep. Patricia Schroeder, a Colorado Democrat, said of lawmakers who want to restore funding for projects in their districts, "They all know it's going to be very difficult, if not impossible."

In the view of many defense specialists on Capitol Hill, this indeed will be one of the toughest years in recent memory for lawmakers, some of whom are accustomed to viewing the defense budget as a huge public works bill that dispenses money and jobs back home.

No one believes for a second that Congress will pass a defense budget this year without adding pet projects and costly boondoggles that come straight from the pork barrel. But there is widespread agreement that expensive items, namely weapons systems that the Pentagon doesn't want or can't afford, will be much more difficult to add to the military spending plan.

Every time President Bush tries to cancel the M1 tank, we've been able to keep the production lines open," said an aide to Sen. Carl Levin, a Democrat from Michigan, where General Dynamics Corp. built the M1A1 tanks that routed the Iraqi army last year.

This time, Mr. Bush's 1993 budget defers any work on a more sophisticated successor to the Army's M1A1 and M1A2 tanks until after 1997 to save $400 million. Defense Secretary Dick Cheney also announced he will not spend money on weapons projects that lawmakers added to the current budget.

Although Mr. Levin will fight yet again to add tank funding to th budget, "if we're going down and lose it, this'll be the year," his aide said. "It will be tough, very tough."

For one thing, several analysts said, senior Democratic leaders will be unwilling to restore projects that Mr. Bush sliced from the budget to achieve his much-touted $50 billion savings over five years.

In addition, a push for deeper defense cuts, perhaps on the order of $75 billion to $100 billion or more, will foreclose many opportunities for traditional defense "logrolling," especially if the favors being sought by individual lawmakers carry hefty price tags.

Influential Democrats, including Senate Majority Leader George J. Mitchell, a Democrat from Maine, and Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Robert C. Byrd, a West Virginia Democrat, will be forced to shoot down a lot of requests, breaking an old pork-barreling taboo.

"There's always the possibility that small pork-barrel programs can be saved," said John Issacs, legislative director of Council for a Livable World, a group advocating lower defense spending.

Other analysts said projects linked to proven conventional weapons, munitions, training, maintenance, and research and development would have better prospects of getting support from stingy leaders.

Mr. Issacs, among others, noted that a "new power constellation" consisting of Mr. Mitchell, Mr. Byrd and Mr. Sasser emerged last year to fight major weapons programs in the defense budget, creating the first serious challenge to the pro-military Senate Armed Services Committee, led by Sen. Sam Nunn, a Georgia Democrat.

his trio is now determined to cut the latest Bush defense plan. "The defense budget is full of waste and bloated in light of the crumbling of communism," said Mr. Byrd. "It can be cut substantially more over five years than the president suggests."

The size of the pork barrel will be determined this spring, as the House and Senate budget committees try to come up with an overall budget figure for defense. So far, the two chairmen, Rep. Leon E. Panetta, a California Democrat, and Mr. Sasser have proposed cuts from $100 billion to $150 billion over five years.

Vice President Dan Quayle predicted last week that Democrats would ultimately bow to parochial interests. Lawmakers "who seem gleeful at basically taking a meat ax to the Department of Defense" will "have second thoughts because it does translate into a loss of jobs," he said.

L "I think that they will back down on this," Mr. Quayle said.

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