Skip to content

Congress blocks cuts to top contractors’ weapon budgets

Millions the Pentagon said it could spend more wisely will instead go to firms

A F-35 fighter jet flying over Ogden, Utah, during a 2017 training mission.
A F-35 fighter jet flying over Ogden, Utah, during a 2017 training mission. (George Frey/Getty Images)

Congress recently blocked the Pentagon from moving more than $1 billion that defense officials had wanted to use instead on programs they consider higher priorities. More than $500 million of the money was for a handful of weapons built by powerful contractors. 

The Pentagon had said it does not need the $500 million-plus that was appropriated for the fighter jets, helicopters, ships, vehicles and bombs made by four of its top five contractors. 

But the congressional Appropriations and Armed Services committees, for reasons that none of them would divulge, insisted that the military spend the money anyway. All four of those panels must agree for the Pentagon to reprogram funds.  

Such reprogramming requests, and congressional reordering of them, are common in Pentagon budgeting. The committees’ reasons for denying requests may be well founded. 

But the public may never know if that is the case. None of the four defense panels provided CQ Roll Call an explanation for forcing the Pentagon to keep spending money on particular initiatives. 

The fate of the latest reprogramming request shows how billions of dollars are moved, or are protected, with scant public scrutiny, unlike the hearings and reports that mark the regular budget process. 

While the reprogramming documents are regularly made public, the rationales behind them are not explained.

Nearly half of the funding that Congress blocked from being diverted in the latest request was for initiatives of its top defense contractors — companies that provide jobs and spend on campaign contributions and lobbyists. This begs the question of how much politics, not national security, influences the committees’ decisions.

A Senate Appropriations Committee aide said the panel considers multiple factors when it weighs reprogramming requests, but the aide did not answer questions about particular programs.

Meanwhile, the Senate Armed Services Committee and House Appropriations Committee did not answer questions about the projects.

Monica Matoush, spokesperson for House Armed Services Committee Democrats, said the panel carefully analyzes reprogramming requests with a focus on helping the U.S. military achieve its missions.

“When making these complex decisions, the committee’s analysis is always focused on the program in question, never the constituencies associated with the program,” Matoush said. “Attempts to ascribe meaning to which constituencies ‘benefit’ from a certain reprogramming, or denial of reprogramming, ignores the many dynamics at play in each decision.”

But Mark Thompson, an analyst with the Project on Government Oversight, a watchdog group, was skeptical of lawmakers’ motives.

“It seems to have a lot more to do with their electoral security than our national security,” he said. 

‘Higher priority’ spending

The latest reprogramming request was submitted to Congress in June and the 97-page outcome after the committees’ response was made public last week.

In it, Pentagon Comptroller Mike McCord had asked to subtract about $4.3 billion from programs appropriated in fiscal 2021 and earlier and to move it elsewhere, such as to compensate the National Guard for border security work or to keep buying semiconductors for weapons from a company that is going out of business. 

“This reprogramming action provides funding in support of higher priority items, based on unforeseen military requirements, than those for which originally appropriated; and are determined to be necessary in the national interest,” McCord wrote. 

In the document, the final decisions are shown by dollar amounts that are either unmarked or, when changes are made, crossed out and replaced with new figures. A brief phrase indicating which committee deferred or denied the decision is mentioned. 

The defense committees can support, deny or defer reprogramming requests for a number of reasons.

These range from “a disagreement on what programs should constitute a priority, to the Pentagon providing incomplete justifications for proposals, to oversight committees already having targeted programs for reduction in their annual bills,” the Senate Appropriations Committee aide said by email.

Mark Cancian, a former Office of Management and Budget official, sees many motives behind the puts and takes.

“Some of the cuts were denied because the programs have broad support, like science and technology,” Cancian, now an analyst with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said in an email. “Others, like the denial of cuts to the F-18 program, may be a result of long-standing congressional reluctance to end production lines. Still others may have been denied because the contractor involved disagrees with DOD on the availability of funds.”

Top contractors’ weapons

The F-35 fighter jet, which is flown by three military services with parts made in nearly every state, exemplifies a program that Congress seems to love more than the Pentagon does. Over the past seven years, Congress has spent on average about $2 billion a year on F-35s that the Pentagon did not order.

McCord had wanted to move tens of millions of dollars from Air Force and Navy F-35 accounts to other U.S. military initiatives. But lawmakers said no to many of these requests. 

The planes are assembled by Lockheed Martin, the Pentagon’s top contractor. 

In the latest reprogramming request, the Senate Armed Services Committee blocked the Defense Department from taking $60 million from Air Force F-35 procurements, even though McCord’s document had said the service didn’t need the money because program costs had dropped. 

On top of that, the Senate Appropriations Committee nixed McCord’s plan to save a separate $20 million that was not needed, he had said, for Navy F-35 procurements for the same reason. 

McCord had also wanted to take $15 million from Lockheed Martin’s CH-53K helicopter program because of delays in executing it, but the House Appropriations Committee said no.

Grey Wolf helicopters

Congress also spared from cuts several Boeing aircraft programs, including Grey Wolf helicopters that are slated to replace aging Huey helicopters used in securing ballistic missile sites and ferrying government officials.

The Grey Wolf program has been delayed, partly because it has taken longer than foreseen to secure Federal Aviation Administration certifications that are needed for flight tests. As a result, the Pentagon does not want to procure more of the helicopters until fiscal 2023.  

McCord’s reprogramming request said $194 million of the program’s money could be used elsewhere with “no major impact.”

Still, the House Armed Services Committee and Senate Appropriations Committee denied the request.

Senate appropriators also denied a request to redirect $19 million slated for Grey Wolf spare parts.

Shields for top programs

The House Armed Services Committee blocked the Pentagon from taking money from other Boeing programs. 

In the company’s Super Hornet fighter jet program, cost savings had made it unnecessary for the Navy to have $18 million for procurement and modifications, McCord said. 

But the House Armed Services Committee said it would receive the money anyway.

Ditto for $15 million that was no longer needed, the Pentagon said, for “operational systems development” in Super Hornet squadrons. The money could not be spent because of delays, according to the request document. 

Because of similar delays, the Pentagon had wanted to merely defer, not cut, $15 million in spending on modifications to Super Hornets and Growlers, another type of Boeing-built plane. The House committee denied the request.

Meanwhile, the department had also asked Congress to free up $73 million that had been appropriated for an Expeditionary Sea Base ship that the Navy had not requested. 

But appropriators said no, insisting the money be spent on the ship, which is made by General Dynamics, another top-five defense contractor.

In addition, while the Pentagon had wanted to move $66 million from so-called General Purpose Bombs, mostly from one built by General Dynamics, because of delays in contracts, Senate authorizers and appropriators both said no.

Similarly, both Senate panels denied a Pentagon request to move $59 million from an electronic bomb fuse program, a system built by Northrop Grumman, another top-five contractor.

“Military spending is always political, whether it’s put together inside the Pentagon or pureed on Capitol Hill,” said Thompson of the Project on Government Oversight.

Recent Stories

Total eclipse of the Hart (and Russell buildings) — Congressional Hits and Misses

House plans to send Mayorkas impeachment articles to Senate on Tuesday

Harris sticks with Agriculture spending, Amodei likely to head DHS panel

Editor’s Note: What passes for normal in Congress

House approves surveillance authority reauthorization bill

White House rattles its saber with warnings to Iran, China about attacking US allies