By David Henry
U.S. House lawmakers will vote on more than 170 amendments to the massive defense policy bill debate this week.
Only one of them has to do with NASCAR.
Minnesota Democratic Rep. Betty McCollum is making her annual push to stop federal spending for sponsorships of things like NASCAR and pro wrestling. Her efforts last time were defeated -- her amendment failed 202-216 -- and though the U.S. Army would eventually drop its NASCAR sponsorship, she's looking to end the spending once and for all, through the policy authorization bill, this year.
"We have to make some smart and tough choices with our defense spending and where we put our dollars, and NASCAR and professional wrestling is not the best use of taxpayer dollars," she said.
It's only the most recent McCollum effort meant to cut what she says is wasteful spending from certain small programs in the defense budget. Last year, she introduced an amendment meant to cap spending on military bands at $200 million, an $188 million cut. The House passed the measure but it was later dropped. Last year's NASCAR amendment would have saved $72.3 million, according to her office. Taken together, the cuts didn't amount to too much -- about $260 million out of a $512 billion budget. But proving a point is just as important to McCollum as anything else.
"It just goes to show, as a Congress, if we can't be serious on scaling back the size of our military bands, if we can't eliminate pilot programs which aren't living up to the expectations of what they were supposed to do in bringing in qualified recruits, if we cant do that, how are we ever going to tackle the tough decisions that need to be made on the size of our fleet, on procurement of aircraft?" she said.
Drone proposal defeated
McCollum has pitched two defense proposals this year. The first, to cut off funding for CIA drone strikes in the defense budget, died in committee on Wednesday thanks in part to opposition from the White House.
The program is part of the shrouded defense "black budget," which means its funding levels are confidential. But McCollum said the provision was about providing more oversight of drone strikes than anything else, by ensuring drone programming comes from the Pentagon and not the CIA. McCollum said she'll bring up the amendment again during floor debate on the budget.
As for NASCAR, she's looking to add an amendment to the defense policy bill to cut off the Army National Guard's recruiting budget for motorsports (like NASCAR) and pro wrestling. In the past McCollum has looked to just cut that funding; this year, she's trying to divert the $54 million devoted to those two things elsewhere.
Such an effort stalled on the floor last year, when lawmakers voted to preserve the funding for NASCAR sponsorships. On the floor last June, Republican Rep. Patrick McHenry said it would be "highly inappropriate for this Congress to get into the business of specifying how best the National Guard, or whatever branch, should spend their dollars on recruiting," despite opponents' insistence that NASCAR sponsorship is simply ineffective at winning new recruits.
McCollum focus "feeding a larger narrative'
McCollum's amendments, even if they were to be approved, would do very little to reduce the overall defense budget. The House is looking to appropriate $512 billion in defense spending in 2014, a $28 billion increase from the post-sequestration budget currently in place.
Even so, the focus on small budgetary line-items has increased in recent years. After the economic crisis and the Tea Party ascension on the Hill, some lawmakers have given more scrutiny to individual programs within the overall defense budget, American Enterprise Institute policy analyst Mackenzie Eaglen said.
That process has obviously had mixed results -- the budget is increasing next year, after all -- but it has helped drive the idea in Washington that the defense budget has grown increasingly bloated.
"It has been very successful at feeling a larger narrative that the defense budget is too big," she said.
But observers say trying to zero-out individual budget line-items like spending on military bands, secret drone programs or NASCAR sponsorships makes fiscal sense as well, if lawmakers are willing to tackle big reforms along the way.
"There's nothing wrong with it, but you can't use it as an excuse not to deal with the big issues," said Larry Korb, a former Pentagon official now at the liberal Center for American Progress.
McCollum said hers is a two-part mission. On one hand, she's trying to find ways to save money through even the smallest defense programs. On the other, she's trying to prove a point, that Congress should look to preserve domestic spending by finding savings within the of the defense budget.
"If we can't do this, if we can't come together on this, I think it just shows that people are willing to talk [about cutting the budget], but not put their votes where it really can make a difference," she said.