WASHINGTON, D.C. — The end of earmarks and the loss of Hawaii’s senior U.S. senators might well have led to something bordering on an economic catastrophe for the islands, but the defense funding bills moving through Congress contain a fair amount of swag for a state that has long enjoyed its pork.
Last week, the House passed a bill with more than $400 million in military construction money. At the same time the Senate Armed Services Committee passed a bill for a similar amount, and it is headed to the full chamber. The House version, pushed by Rep. Colleen Hanabusa, includes $72 million in loans for building ships. And, there’s language calling on the Navy to fund a certain type of research that — wink, wink — just happens to be a specialty of engineering firms in Hawaii.
The National Defense Authorization Act is supposed to be a spending bill, but it includes plenty of pet projects that have nothing to do with money for the military, and that are only tangentially related to national defense.
Hawaii has a unique relationship with pork. As the other white meat of politics, pork is generally viewed negatively because it can be a source of particularly wasteful spending. But it has also long been an important nutrient for Hawaii’s economy. So much so that when Sen. Daniel Inouye died, fears of a dramatic loss in federal funding for Hawaii were dubbed the “Inouye-cliff.”
However, as David Carey, the chairman of the Chamber of Commerce of Hawaii’s military affairs committee, noted during a lobbying trip to Washington last week, the islands are to some extent insulated by their importance to the military. Despite being in the minority in a House that is controlled by Republicans, Hawaii’s special weight on the defense front allowed Hanabusa to get the House Armed Services Committee to insert funding that is important to the islands.
At a seminar on the future of the military last week Hanabusa, a Democrat, was notably buddy-buddy with Rep. Randy Forbes, the Republican chairman of the House Seapower and Projection Forces Subcommittee. Hanabusa noted that she represents Pearl Harbor, while Forbes, R-Va., represents Norfolk, where there is a major naval base. They’ve got a lot in common, she said. Forbes returned the love, describing Hanabusa, who is a member of the opposing party, as a smart and strategic thinker.
Because of the relationships forged on the committee, Hanabusa was able to include provisions that seem unusual in a spending bill. She added provisions to name both the Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies in Honolulu and the University of Health Sciences’ Graduate School of Nursing for the late Sen. Daniel Inouye, a move that could help her politically as she associates herself with the late senator’s aura.
And at a time when there’s pressure on federal agencies to lessen spending on conferences, Hanabusa, along with Rep. Joe Heck, who represents Las Vegas, included working language that forbids the Department of Defense from discriminating against resort and vacation spots in picking locations.
Sen. Mazie Hirono, a member of the Armed Services Committee, advanced provisions within a separate defense spending bill, along with Sen. Brian Schatz, that includes its own Hawaii-friendly goodies. It authorizes the Navy to, among other things, lease 11 acres at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam to the non-profit Navy Hale Keiki School at below-market rates.
(Rep. Tulsi Gabbard also added one of her priorities, getting an amendment passed that should make it easier for Afghan and Iraqi citizens who served alongside U.S. troops to immigrate to the U.S.)
The spending bills also illustrate how the process for sending money back home works in the days after Congress passed a moratorium on earmarks, the long-used channel that members of Congress used to insert provisions and direct where the money should go.
But in the post-earmark world, members of Congress do still work behind the scenes to insert funding in spending bills that are approved by committee, and then shepherd them through the entire chamber, which can allow them to funnel money to constituents, businesses or structures in a particular state. While earmarks directed money to a specific company, the funneling now is more subtle.
So Hanabusa includes a generic-sounding provision in the House bill that directs the Office of Naval Research to consider research funding for the development of an Array Burial Vehicle capable of installing acoustic intelligence systems. And it turns out that a lot of the companies that do that kind of research are in Hawaii.
There are still ways to channel the money where a member of Congress wants it to go, explains Steve Ellis, vice president of the Washington, D.C. watchdog group, Taxpayers for Common Sense.
Ellis said that it is common for members of Congress to follow up with agencies, after adding money to a spending bill, to try to steer it toward specific companies or organizations.
He said that “letter marking,” which involves writing a letter to a department, or “phone marking,” which describes making a call to say ‘spend the money here,’ lawmakers still try — and often succeed — in influencing where the money goes, said Ellis.
Money can also be funneled to favored special interests, he said, through tariff reductions, which are a form of tax break.
Earmarks had their own transparency issues, Ellis noted. The old system was hardly ideal. There were thousands of earmarks, often in vague language that did not explicitly name the company where the money was supposed to go. Still, the new system has its own transparency issues.
Whereas earmarks were tied to whoever sponsored them, committee spending bills do not give an indication of who will receive the money.
Schatz and Hirono have not given access to their funding requests, and Hanabusa has not said what she failed to get funding for. (She did release her non-defense funding requests, including money for Native Hawaiian housing, tsunami warning buoys and the East-West Center.)
As Ellis said, “They’re only telling you what they want you to know.”