As the nation hung perilously close to the fiscal cliff and the Pentagon faced its steepest budget cuts in history, the military was spreading around New Year's cheer at taxpayer expense.
The Pentagon spent $247,000 to sponsor its first-ever float in California's Rose Bowl parade on Jan. 1, the Air Force scrambled a B2 bomber to roar over the stadium and wow fans at the ensuing college football game. Just days earlier, the Marines and Army had bought stadium ads at the Military Bowl football game across the country in Washington D.C.
The festive spending sat in uncomfortable contrast with the Pentagon's sober assessment that planned budget cuts in 2013 -- part of the so-called fiscal cliff debt deal -- were so severe that they would require it to crimp its mission and jeopardize national security.
The conflict was not lost on fiscal watchdogs.
"DOD needs to be able to publicly justify these expenditures by showing that there is a metric for showing their effectiveness and show that they are actually effective," said Laura Peterson, a senior policy analyst at the nonpartisan Taxpayers for Common Sense. “That includes sponsorship of NASCAR, the military bands, the Blue Angels; there’s lots of stuff that people look at and say 'Well, is it the best way to spend money?'”
The military uses events such as college football bowls to honor service members, inspire patriotism and attract recruits, but such public displays have come under increasing scrutiny from lawmakers as they seek ways to trim the Defense Department's budget.
And there's the question of why the military services are spending recruitment money when they are being shrunk in size and their recruitment goals are already being met.
It's all part of a larger bloc of federal spending on image-making and messaging. A joint investigation by the Washington Guardian and Medill News Service found in November that the federal government has spent roughly $16 billion in the past decade on outside advertising, marketing and public relations, not including the public affairs office present in most government departments.
The military has particularly faced scrutiny, especially after revelations it scrambled jets more than 1,000 times for sporting and other events in 2011 and was spending tens of millions of dollars on race car sponsorships.
The Army, in fact, ended its multimillion sponsorship of a NASCAR race car and recently stopped promotional flyovers.
But the Air Force continues to use its aircraft to wow audiences, and flew a B-2 stealth bomber over the field at the Rose Bowl game. Such jets cost $10,000 or more an hour to operate, officials have said.
And the advertising bonanza continues. The Army and Marines both paid to put up advertising signs at the Military Bowl college football game played in Washington D.C. on Dec. 27, the bowl's managers told the Washington Guardian.
The Pentagon declined to provide exact costs for the flyover or the stadium ads. But it did confirm that the float entered into the Rose Bowl parade in Pasadena, Calif., which honored Korean War veterans, cost taxpayers $247,000. It did not respond to repeated request for comment on why the monies were spent at a time when such huge budget cuts are pending.
Air Force spokeswoman Pamela Friend told the Washington Guardian that flyovers provide valuable training for pilots.
"Flyovers are performed at no additional cost to the taxpayer - the supporting flying units use allotted operational flying training hours," she said. "Most flyovers occur in conjunction with a scheduled flying mission and provide excellent training. By flying at a predetermined point in an event, such as the conclusion of the National Anthem, our pilots are able to receive necessary training to assist them with time on target."
The Air Force receives about 3,100 flyover requests annually, Friend said, but only approves about half, which serve as outreach to the public.
"Flyovers allow the Air Force to demonstrate our capabilities firsthand to the American people and help to tell the Air Force story," she said. "Traditionally, the Air Force supports events such as the Rose Bowl Parade and game because it allows us to reach people both in-stadium and nationally through different media outlets."
It remains to be seen whether the latest round of Pentagon spending on promotion will draw the ire of Congress.
Most lawmakers don't want to appear critical of the military or veterans. In fact, when Reps. Jack Kingston, R-Ga., and Betty McCollum, D-Minn., introduced an amendment to a military spending bill last summer that would ban the military services from spending money on sports sponsorships, it was narrowly defeated, 216-202.
On the same day as the Rose Bowl, Congress voted on legislation that temporarily forestalled the steep budget cuts planned for the military. But Peterson said the issue likely isn't going away anytime soon, and the Pentagon may be forced to justify how expenditures at football games and festivities actually pay off.
"We need to ask, are we confident that DOD is really using a good metric to measure whether sponsoring a NASCAR entry or a float in a parade is effective in maintaining morale or increasing recruitment numbers," she said.