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Like Democrats, GOP Deals Out Defense Budget Extras : Congress: Republicans have vowed to end pork-barrel Pentagon projects. But a House bill shows a familiar pattern of political largess.

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

For years, when Democrats controlled the House Armed Services and Appropriations committees, they routinely added millions of dollars of pork-barrel projects to the Pentagon’s budget--partly on the theory that it would help them win votes.

The Democratic largess, mostly for building and maintenance projects never requested by the Pentagon, usually went to military installations in the committee members’ home districts.

After Republicans won control of Congress in November, they declared war on such military “pork.”

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Rep. Joel Hefley (R-Colo.), the new chairman of the House National Security subcommittee on military installations and facilities, told the Air Force Times last month: “I hope we get away from spending defense dollars just to make yourself look good at home.”

Promises, promises.

The Republican-crafted military construction bill approved by the House would add a net $500 million to what the Pentagon requested for fiscal 1996--almost exactly the amount the Democrats had been tacking on in previous years.

The Republicans actually added $679 million, covering 90 separate projects--from a new physical fitness center at the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard in Bremerton, Wash., to an overpass at Ft. Sam Houston in Texas. They cut $179 million elsewhere to offset the cost.

A study compiled by Business Executives for National Security, a nonpartisan defense-monitoring group, shows that the Republican-dominated committees are distributing their political spoils in much the same way the Democrats did.

“Despite all the rhetoric, the money that Congress added under the Republicans is virtually the same as it was when the Democrats were in the majority,” said David Evans, the analyst who compiled the report. “For all the GOP rhetoric, it’s business as usual.”

The report contains these findings:

* Of $513 million added for military construction projects inside the United States, about $474 million--or just over 92%--went to states that have lawmakers on the National Security Committee. Some $274 million--almost 54%--was earmarked for those members’ home districts.

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* Party affiliation strongly influenced distribution of the money. Republicans, who make up 55% of the National Security Committee, garnered 57.5% of the projects added in members’ home districts. Democrats, who hold 45% of the seats on the panel, won 42.5% of the projects.

* Of the remaining $39 million--about 7% of the $513 million total--allocated to states that do not have lawmakers on the National Security Committee, $30 million went to states with members on the House Appropriations Committee, which has the final say on allocating money.

The study does show one significant difference from the days when Democrats were running the show: While Democrats’ favorite way to spread the political pork was to fix up their local National Guard armories, Republicans have turned to building child-care facilities at military bases.

In all, the National Security Committee added about nine new child-care projects to the bill, at a cost of $30 million more than the Pentagon requested. The report by the business executives group said eight of them were in states represented by members of the panel.

Evans argues that spending for extra construction projects in lawmakers’ home districts may impede the Pentagon’s ability to improve the quality of life for personnel.

“If they’d pumped the same $500 million into the Pentagon’s operations and maintenance accounts, the services could have used it to maintain existing barracks and housing facilities more effectively,” Evans said. “Add-ons are nothing but micro-management.”

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But Republicans are unrepentant about their add-ons. Hefley argues that, rather than adding “pork-barrel” projects, all his subcommittee did was boost spending for improvements to enhance the quality of life in the military--a goal that the Clinton Administration shares as well.

Hefley says about 80% of the projects added by the panel already had been included in the Pentagon’s list of long-term needs. All the panel did was accelerate them, he says. He also insists that despite the defense group’s allegations, his subcommittee meticulously reviewed every project.

Republicans also shrug off the business group’s complaints that most of the add-ons went to committee members’ own states and home districts.

“People who have large bases in their districts tend to gravitate to these [National Security and Appropriations] committees,” a GOP strategist argued. “It’s only natural that the money should go where the bases are.”

Republican analysts also argue that the committees did boost financing for the Pentagon’s operations and maintenance accounts, contrary to the business group’s claims, adding an extra $1 billion for maintaining barracks and other military structures.

They also point out that for all the extra money they provided, Republicans did not allocate so much as a dollar for building new National Guard armories.

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“If you define ‘pork’ as building military housing for families faster than the Pentagon would have done it, then we’ll take the hit,” one GOP insider said. “We don’t view housing as a frill.”

Although the Administration had sought to cut Pentagon spending as a whole, Defense Secretary William J. Perry persuaded President Clinton to boost the budget for new military construction by $600 million over last year’s level, partly to upgrade military housing.

The White House also requested an extra $1.2 billion to cover the cost of closing unneeded military bases, which the Pentagon says it must shut to save money that can be used to maintain military readiness and modernize weapons systems.

The Administration, however, opposed the add-ons. “The total appropriation is $500 million more than requested,” the White House said in a formal position paper. “With the nation facing serious budget constraints, such a spending increase is not affordable.”

There’s no easy way to predict what the Senate will do to the House-passed legislation later this month. Although the Senate traditionally has been more circumspect, senators have also shown that they are not above adding projects of their own.

And admittedly, the House action is not going to break the bank. The additional $500 million for military construction was only a small part of the $9.5-billion increase the House approved for the Pentagon’s overall military budget.

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