Nel's New Day

May 15, 2015

House Gives DOD $612 with No Audit

When sequestration spending caps were passed in 2011 to avoid the debt ceiling crisis, over 200 congressional Republicans voted in favor of the law. Since then, the GOP has not changed the law, but today the House defied it by passing a $612 billion defense bill with all except eight Republicans  in favor of the budget. Ceilings on everything else–infrastructure, safety net, etc.–are just fine, according to these Republicans, but the war industry needs more money.

Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) moaned about Democrats ignoring all “the sacrifices [the troops] make,” calling the Dems opposition “indefensible.”  The word “indefensible” is appropriate for the GOP’s refusal to protect military personnel and their families from predatory lending. After Defense Department officials created new safeguards last fall to implement new protections in this area, House GOP members tried to add a provision to the defense bill that would delay the new rules for at least a year. When that failed, Rep. Steve Stivers (R-OH) introduced legislation to again block the DOD from putting its rules into effect. Payday loan companies gave almost $70,000 to Stivers’ campaign.

On the first day of the 114th Congress, Republicans made a rules change to cut 20 percent in Social Security disability benefits, hurting disabled veterans. The proposed GOP change in food stamps will deny 60,000 veterans this life-saving benefit. This year’s GOP funding bill is $1 billion short on providing care and services to veterans.

Last year the GOP failed to support bills that would help veterans have job security, retraining, counseling, and scholarships. Another failed bill because of the GOP would increase VA funding for home structural improvements for those veterans more than 50 percent disabled—for example, those who need a wheelchair ramp in order to live at home.

One of the 135 amendments that passed was a provision by Rep. Frank Lucas (R-OK) to stop the re-listing of the lesser prairie chicken on the endangered species list until 2021, unless the Interior Department determines that a conservation plan is not working. It passed 229-190. Someone might want to ask him how the lesser prairie chicken is related to defense.

A proposed amendment to consider undocumented immigrants with work permits through the DREAMERS program to serve in the military was voted down. Rep. Mo Brooks (R-AL) said the rejection was a jobs issue because the military is downsizing.

Also voted down was an amendment “in the form of a limited and narrow authorization against ISIS” because “the defense bill was not the place to debate the war,” according  Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA).  As he added, “If not here, where?” President Obama’s airstrikes against ISIL began nine months ago, and he sent a proposal about this authorization three months ago. The GOP has avoided any discussion of this issue in Congress that has cost $2.1 billion with 3,700 airstrikes and about 3,000 military personal sent to Iraq. While the House GOP members are suing the president for his other actions, they oppose reining in his war authority. Rep. Jim McGovern (D-MA) claims that the GOP can’t find 218 votes for any action.

As the GOP pushes the defense funding increase through the House, the Republicans ignore the history of DOD waste. The $400 billion Pentagon’s F-35 Joint Strike Fighter can’t pass even the most basic requirements necessary for flying in combat. At this time, it’s $170 billion over budget, and the only thing soaring about it is the cost. Auditors question whether it can serve its purpose as the Pentagon continues to throw more money at it. The jet is vulnerable to engine fires because of its design and the “precision-guided Small Diameter Bomb II doesn’t even fit on the Marine’s version of the jet,” according to Military.com. Software necessary to operate the bomb won’t be operational for another seven years–2022.

Recently appointed Secretary of Defense, Ashton Carter, oversaw the development of the F-35 fighter jet, which will cost the United States an unprecedented $1.5 trillion. He also oversaw production of $50 billion worth of MRAP armored vehicles with thousands of them scrapped almost immediately at a loss of over $2 billion. The 27,000 MRAPs sent to Iraq and Afghanistan resulted in an over-supply and were then decommissioned to militarize U.S. police departments in places as small as Dundee (MI), population 3,900. To Carter, “nuclear weapons don’t actually cost that much.” This is the program that will cost up to $1 trillion in the next three decades.

Federal auditors found a loss of $43 billion in Afghanistan reconstruction. The Pentagon has no answer for the missing funds other than it may have gone to more direct war needs. John F. Sopko, special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction, said, “It’s like you gave your credit card to your teenage daughter or son and then you just never looked at the bills.” Tracking the $100 billion allocated for relief and reconstruction has been almost impossible. “We don’t even have a list from (the Defense Department) of where they spent the money. We have no centralized list of where the taxpayer money went in Afghanistan,” Sopko said.

A never-used $600 million C-27 aircraft sits on runways in Kabul and Germany, and a massive $34 million command center in Helmand has never been used and will probably be leveled. The empty 64,000-square-foot command center with an expensive air-conditioning system can hold over 1,000 people. Its incinerators cost $11.5 million, but no one was hired to run the machines. The military burned its trash in an open-air pit.

The Pentagon spent $7.6 billion fighting a war on opium in Afghanistan where the poppy crop is bigger than ever. The U.S. Air Force bought half a billion dollars worth of transport planes and scrapped them for six cents a pound. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers built thousands of buildings for the Afghan military where contractors used low-quality insulation that’s so flammable that international codes prohibit its use. When contractors promised to stop its use and replace the faulty insulation, Maj. Gen. Michael Eyre stopped them. He wrote in a 2014 memo:

 “The typical occupant populations for these facilities are young, fit Afghan soldiers and recruits who have the physical ability to make a hasty retreat during a developing situation.”

The DOD wastes billions of dollars in just spare parts. For example, Boeing overcharges up to 177,000 percent; Hamilton Sundstrand is more reasonable at only 900 percent. A redacted version of a July 2014 report showed that the Pentagon overpaid Bell Helicopter 395 percent-$9 million–just on 33 of 35 sole-source commercial parts.

GOP legislators and presidential candidates are being lobbied by arms dealers to raise the defense budget and go to war. Former Rep. Mike Rogers (R-MI), ex-chair of the House Intelligence Committee, heads up the group called Americans for Peace, Prosperity and Security to front for the military-industrial complex. Known for claiming that Edward Snowden was a Russian double agent, Rogers pushed for unlimited surveillance through the CISPA bill and support of NSA.

Rogers’ wife, Kristi Rogers, serves as President and CEO of Aegis LLC, a defense contractor with a $10 billion contract to provide security and intelligence-gathering services to the State Department. The board of his lobbying group is a virtual who’s who of the defense industry and a prominent partner of the New Hampshire GOP.  The situation is reminiscent of former Vice President Dick Cheney’s $34 million pay-off oilfield services provider Halliburton before he instigated the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

The Pentagon doesn’t even want some of the things that Congress is pushing on them. For example, this $8.76 billion:

  • $4.7 billion: refueling the USS George Washington.
  • $1.46 billion:  15 EA-18G Growler electronic warfare planes.
  • $1 billion: starting on an additional San Antonio-class amphibious transport dock ship.
  • $479 million: four F-35 fighter jets raising the total to 38).
  • $341 million: modernizing 12 Apache helicopters and nine Black Hawk helicopters.
  • $200 million:  another Joint High Speed Vessel ship.
  • $155 million: 12 more MQ-9 Reaper drones.
  • $154 million: another P-8A Poseidon Navy surveillance aircraft.
  • $120 million: M1 Abrams tank upgrades.
  • $150 million: medium and heavy tactical vehicles.

In the past 46 years, food stamps have cost taxpayers $1.035 trillion. That’s less than three times the annual defense budget that the House passed today. Wisconsin is trying to keep people on food stamps from buying shredded cheese while the $43 billion lost in Afghanistan is negligible. At the same time that Congress adds to the defense budget, it cuts security for embassies.

The following chart shows how the U.S. defense budget compares to those in the countries nearest the U.S. in expenditures:

military 2015

The House plans to throw at least $612 billion at the Pentagon without knowing where the taxpayer monies go. In 1990, Congress passed a law requiring all government agencies to achieve audit-readiness. Only the Pentagon has not achieved this within the ensuing two and a half decades. Since the first audit was due in 1997, Congress has extended the deadline several times, most recently until 2017. Boehner and the other House members who voted for the bloated defense budget must instinctively know that the Pentagon needs $612 billion. If Amtrak can survive on an 18-percent reduction, so can the Department of Defense.

February 2, 2015

President Releases Budget, Opposes GOP in Mandatory Vaccinations

Have you heard all that squealing coming out of Washington, D.C. today? It’s not Sen. Joni Ernst (R-IA) castrating pigs with the new tool that Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) gave her. No, it’s the release of President Obama’s 2016 budget, the book of how to get money and where to spend it.

In brief, he wants more spending, tax breaks for the middle class and poor workers, and higher taxes on the wealthy and large banks. The entire process is symbolic because Congress passes the budget, and this year’s Congress is GOP-controlled. Therefore, Congress will largely ignore anything that the president recommends. The budget, however, is a distinct document about the values of political parties and individuals, and the president has set up the debate for these issues.

  • Expand the child care tax credit by up to $3,000 per child;
  • Establish a $2.2 billion grant program to encourage states to create paid sick and family leave programs;
  • Begin a four-year program to improve roads, bridges and railways nationwide;
  • Help pay for preschool for 4-year-olds from poor and middle-income families;
  • Expand and extend tax credits for parents paying for child care, college students paying tuition, and low-wage childless workers;
  • Increase the Pentagon’s budget by $38 billion;
  • The president’s budget wishlist:
  • Increase the pay of military and federal employees by 1.3 percent;
  • Extend unemployment insurance;
  • Provide $215 million for research known as “precision medicine,” which involves using patients’ genetic information to tailor medications specifically to their bodies;
  • Set up a dedicated fund for fighting wildfires.

Declining debt: Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-UT) accuses the president of being “fiscally irresponsible,” but according to the White House, the budget will begin to pay down the national debt while not increasing the debt. Officials say that the plan gives a $474 billion deficit, 2.5 percent of the GDP, down from $583 billion and matching the deficits of the past 50 years. The recent increase in the deficit came from tax funding because of decreased income. With cuts in federal spending and increased taxes, the deficit has declined. A growth in economy during the next decade with the president’s proposals will cause the debt to decline to represent 73.3 percent of GDP in ten years, down from the current 75 percent.

Funding sources: The president has always wanted limits on tax breaks that help the top two percent of the wealthy to keep the deficit in line. This proposal reduces the deficit by $1.8 trillion through spending cuts and tax increases, possibly one on tobacco to pay for early childhood education.

Other possible proposals:

  • Raising the capital gains tax, paid by investors when they sell at a profit.
  • Imposing a new tax on inheritances.
  • Cutting corporate tax rate to 28 percent while taxing overseas profits at 14 percent when companies bring them back to the United States.
  • Levying a tax on large banks to compensate for the advantage they gain in the market from being seen as “too big to fail.”

Affect of new taxes: Families with children would benefit from the credit for child care, but the increase in the capital gains tax and the tax on banks could mean higher prices or lower wages.

GOP response: House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-WI) said that his party will not separate corporate tax reform from an overhaul of the individual tax code. They want to raise funding for the military but no one else.

The next step: The GOP will have to put together its own budget, hoping to keep both voters and the wealthy contributors to their campaigns happy. Right now, they’re worried about passing a bill that funds Homeland Security before February 28 of this year.

The budget fails to follow the sequestration that imposed automatic spending cuts, but the austerity of the past several years may be loosened because the GOP are going to want some of the same things that the president does. For example, the highway trust fund is empty by June: people in both parties understand that the U.S. infrastructure is rapidly crumbling, making this area a priority.

President Obama’s budget plan would end the strict spending caps on domestic and defense programs by raising military spending by $38 billion over the capped level and nondefense spending by $37 billion. Social Security spending would rise from $891 billion this year to $1.6 trillion in 2025, and Medicare would climb from $529 billion to over $1 trillion. These programs would increase from 13.2 percent of the economy this year to 14.8 percent in a decade, while domestic and defense programs under Congress’s discretion would shrink to 4.5 percent of the economy in 2025, from the current 6.4 percent. Tax increases on the wealthy, big banks, and fees of hedge fund and private equity managers would raise almost $1 trillion in the same time. If the House passed the former Senate bill on immigration, the deficit could shrink by $158 billion.

The GOP may not want to give a one-time corporate tax rate on overseas profits brought back into the country to be used for infrastructure construction, but it’s an idea put forward by Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) who also wants to be president. Tech giants like Apple, Google, and Microsoft are some of the corporations that keep most of their cash abroad to avoid paying U.S. taxes. After the initial 14 percent tax to bring the money home, companies would have to pay at least 19 percent on future offshore earnings with no loopholes or opportunities for deferral. Companies have at least $2 trillion overseas.

The president’s goal for transportation and infrastructure of $478 billion is more than one-third above the current spending rate and a 75 percent increase for mass transit. Half of that money would come from the current taxes on gasoline and other fuels. Another $238 billion would come from the one-time surge of taxes as corporations are forced to pay 14 percent on profits now parked abroad.

The proposal of a major expansion of the earned income credit for low-income workers without children is also backed by Ryan.

The talk about vaccinations overshadowed the discussion of the president’s budget on the media today. President Obama came out yesterday and said that he thought that vaccinations were vital. With an outbreak currently at 102 cases in 14 states possibly because children were infected at Disneyland, the spread across the nation is becoming more dangerous. The 644 cases last year in the U.S. was the most since the early 1990s. About two of every 1,000 people with measles will die; others suffer hearing loss, pneumonia, and brain swelling.

Two potential presidential candidates said today that vaccinations should be optional rather than mandated. Trying to look presidential while touring a vaccine laboratory in Cambridge, England, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who forcibly isolated healthy Kaci Hickox because of her proximity to Ebola victims, asked for “some measure of choice” regarding vaccinations against measles and other diseases in children. He was followed by Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) who said that move vaccines should be voluntary because children end up “with profound mental disorders after vaccines.” Paul added, “The state doesn’t own your children.”

Public outcry caused Christie to back-pedal; an aide said that he believes vaccines are “an important public health protection.” On the other hand, Paul doubled down on his claim that vaccinations should all be “voluntary.” He has an anti-vaccine history with his past membership in Association of American Physicians and Surgeons, a group of pro-life doctors who believe that abortion increases the chance of breast cancer in women, consider Medicare to be “evil” and “immoral,” question the link between HIV and AIDS, and protest vaccinations for health workers.

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