WASHINGTON – NASCAR and bass fishing can count on the military to keep the sponsorship money coming.
The House voted Wednesday night to continue spending millions for the military to back sports to attract recruits for the all-volunteer force. On a vote of 216-202, the House rejected an amendment by Reps. Jack Kingston, R-Ga., and Betty McCollum, D-Minn., that would have trimmed $72.3 million for sports sponsorships from a $608 billion defense bill for fiscal 2013.
The measure had targeted the money the National Guard spends to sponsor Dale Earnhardt Jr., NASCAR's most popular driver, as well as IndyCar Series driver JR Hildebrand. It also would have cut money the Army spends on the National Hot Rod Association drag racing, funds the Marine Corps uses for the Ultimate Fighting Championship and money spent on bass fishing.
Kingston and McCollum had challenged their colleagues' resolve to cut federal spending as the nation grapples with the trillion-plus deficit. House Republicans, their majority larger thanks to the 2010 class of tea party freshmen, have insisted on fiscal discipline and backed deep budget cuts in numerous domestic programs.
The House also rejected an effort by McCollum to reduce the budget for the military's 140 bands and 5,000 full-time musicians from $388 million to $200 million. The congresswoman had questioned the need to spend nearly $4 billion over the next decade on military bands and musical performances.
The House spent most of the day and night debating the far-reaching defense legislation that provides money for war, troops and weapons next year. Yet talk of Earnhardt's No. 88, bass fishing and NASCAR dominated the discussion.
Kingston, a Georgian who says he hails from NASCAR and military country, insisted that the sponsorship money was ineffective, attracting few recruits, and made no sense as the Army shrinks from a peak of 570,000 to 490,000 and the Marine Corps drops by 20,000, to 182,000. The end of the Iraq war, the drawdown in Afghanistan and the nation's fiscal woes have reshaped the defense budget, which has nearly doubled in the last 10 years.
"If someone is going to sign away five or six years of their life, it's going to take more than an ad on an automobile," Kingston told reporters at a Capitol Hill news conference prior to the floor debate.
He said the money should be spent on hiring more recruiters, not military sponsorships.
"We're in a fiscal crisis here," said Minnesota's McCollum. "Bass fishing is not national security."
But the two faced strong opposition from members of North Carolina's congressional delegation as well as lawmakers from Mississippi and Florida.
North Carolina is home to Charlotte Motor Speedway, and the base for most NASCAR teams. The NASCAR Hall of Fame is located in Charlotte adjacent to one of NASCAR's main offices. Its headquarters are in Daytona Beach, Fla.
Republican Rep. Sue Myrick dismissed the amendment as micromanaging the military's recruiting. Democratic Rep. Larry Kissell said the relationship between the military and NASCAR was critical.
Rep. Steven Palazzo, R-Miss., said there was "no reason Congress should be telling the Department of Defense where and how to spend money." In fact, Congress repeatedly instructs the Pentagon on how to spend the money it appropriates.
The effort by Kingston and McCollum suffered an early blow when a separate provision of the bill barring funds for sponsoring professional and semiprofessional motorsports and other sports was ruled out of order by the presiding officer in the House.
The Obama administration has threatened a veto of the overall defense bill after lawmakers abandoned the budget levels they agreed to last year and added $3 billion to preserve some programs and add money to others. Specifically, the bill blocks the Pentagon's plans to retire or transfer various aircraft, including C-27Js, C-23s and a version of the Global Hawk unmanned aerial vehicle.
By voice vote, the House approved an amendment that would cut half the U.S. aid to Pakistan, reducing the amount to $650 million.
Rep. Ted Poe, R-Texas, called Pakistan the "Benedict Arnold" of nations and complained about the level of Islamabad's cooperation in the fight against terrorism. Members of Congress are particularly angry with Pakistan's conviction of Shakil Afridi, the doctor who helped the United States track down Osama bin Laden but was sentenced to 33 years for high treason.
"Pakistan doesn't deserve American money," Poe said.
Various sports leagues weighed in this week on the military sponsorships, sending a letter to Republican and Democratic leaders urging them to oppose the amendment.
"Sports marketing has long been an important element in the U.S. Armed Forces' efforts to reach young adults and active duty personnel regarding the military's missions and objectives that serve our country," said the letter to House Republican and Democratic leaders from NASCAR, IZOD IndyCar series, Major League Baseball, the National Football League and the National Basketball Association.
"The benefits from these types of sponsorships offset the minimal costs to taxpayers," the letter said.
In recent days, the Army ended its sponsorship with Stewart-Haas Racing, with the service saying the money was not a great investment.
Associated Press writer Jenna Fryer in Charlotte, N.C., contributed to this report.