The 2009-page $1.1 trillion omnibus spending bill before Congress this week includes a $640 million earmark for a Coast Guard ship the Coast Guard doesn't want, but K Street does.
Veteran appropriator and league-leading porker Thad Cochran stuck the earmark in the bill, to the benefit of his home state and his lobbyist friends representing the shipbuilder who will get the contract. It's a nice return on the investment those lobbyists made to get Cochran re-elected last year.
The U.S. Coast Guard in recent years has begun replacing some of its aging fleet with top-of-the-line 418-feet National Security Cutters. The NSC has advanced weapons systems and a helipad. "Each NSC is built to serve as operational-level headquarters for complex law enforcement, defense and national security missions," the Coast Guard brags.
It's a great ship. The Coast Guard has had five built, and three more are under contract. "These assets have proven to be highly effective and capable," a Coast Guard spokesman told National Defense magazine, "the Coast Guard has not identified a need for additional NSCs at this time."
Appropriations Committee Chairman Thad Cochran thinks the Coast Guard is wrong, and that they need a ninth NSC. Early this year, Cochran inserted a $640 million earmark into the Homeland Security Appropriations bill, which the committee approved in April.
"The current Coast Guard production goal for only eight National Security Cutters is based on dated assessments and is insufficient to meet current or future requirements," the Mississippi Republican said in a statement at the time. "I am pleased that the Senate bill would maintain the national security cutter production line in order to give the Coast Guard more certainty and capabilities to meet its operational requirements."
Cochran omitted one very relevant detail: The "production line" in question is in Pascagoula, Miss.
"Cochran was the prime force," reported the Associated Press, "behind more than $600 million to construct an additional Coast Guard national security cutter that would be built by Ingalls Shipbuilding at its facility in Pascagoula, Mississippi."
Bringing $640 million home to Mississippi for a ship the Coast Guard says it doesn't need in a giant spending bill that busts the budget — that's exactly why K Street lobbyists fought so hard to re-elect Cochran in 2014.
Running for a seventh term in 2014, Cochran finished second in the GOP primary to Tea Party challenger Chris McDaniel, and was forced into a runoff. "I guess Mississippi doesn't want federal money anymore," snarked revolving-door Republican lobbyist and devoted Tea Party foe John Feehery.
Cochran was in line to chair Appropriations, and was the reigning earmark king in the U.S. Senate before the 2011 Republican moratorium on earmarks. Earmarking is usually understood as home-state parochialism — bringing federal tax dollars to the people back home. Parochialism it may well be, but it's better understood as a spigot of cash for K Street.
Lobbyist Trent Lott, a former senator from Mississippi, was the among the first K Streeters in 2014 to run to Cochran's defense. "Over the years, we've had to fight for funds," Lott said in one ad. "Without Thad Cochran we could lose some of these important facilities."
Lobbyist Haley Barbour, a former governor of Mississippi, set up a Super PAC to save Cochran, and gave generously himself. "Senator Cochran is able to get things done in Washington that wouldn't get done otherwise."
These two were right. Without Cochran, Pascagoula and Ingalls probably wouldn't have gotten this $640 million cutter contract — because the Coast Guard said it didn't need the cutter.
Cochran disagrees with the Coast Guard on the Coast Guard's needs — and that's his right. Civilian control of the military is a crucial pillar of America's republican democracy. But we also can guess, from the words of his friends like Lott and Feehery, that Coast Guard effectiveness isn't Cochran's only interest. He also wants federal money flowing into Mississippi.
Of course, that money first flows through K Street. Trent Lott is a lobbyist for Ingalls, pulling in $20,000 a month working solely on "Issues related to Coast Guard National Security Cutter," according to his firm's lobbying filings. Barbour is also an Ingalls lobbyist, "Provid[ing] counsel and strategic advice on government activity affecting the defense industry," according to his firm's filing.
Imposing his opinions on the Coast Guard's need is his right. Bringing home the bacon is what he ran on. Cochran is just lucky that these priorities line up so well with enriching his lobbyist fundraisers.
Timothy P. Carney, The Washington Examiner's senior political columnist, can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. His column appears Tuesday and Thursday nights on washingtonexaminer.com.