Washington Sketch: Lawmakers Defend Nation From Sensible Spending

House defense appropriator Jack Murtha (D-Pa.) worried in the meeting that a project cost "only" $2 billion.
House defense appropriator Jack Murtha (D-Pa.) worried in the meeting that a project cost "only" $2 billion. (By Melina Mara -- The Washington Post)
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By Dana Milbank
Wednesday, June 10, 2009

This meeting of the Senate Military-Industrial Caucus will now come to order.

The chair recognizes the senator from Northrop Grumman for a question.

"We've noticed the increase in the amphibious ship fleet needs that go beyond traditional military missions," said Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.). "Do you see a continuing need for shipbuilding in the amphibious area?"

Of course, Senator. Nobody will hurt the DD(X) destroyers they build in Pascagoula.

Does the senator from General Dynamics have a question?

"Littoral combat ships," said Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.). "Do you believe that this program will play a vital role in our Navy's future fleet?"

Certainly, Senator. Tell the folks in Mobile that their shipbuilding operation is safe. The chair now recognizes the senator from Boeing.

"I wanted to ask you today if you can tell me how you are taking into account the health and longevity of our domestic industrial base," asked Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.).

Sure, Senator. Your constituents in Everett will get another shot at that aerial refueling tanker contract they lost to the Airbus consortium.

And so it went at yesterday's hearing of the Senate Appropriations defense subcommittee. Defense Secretary Robert Gates, attempting a bold reshaping of the military-industrial complex to meet the changing nature of war, pleaded with the lawmakers to rise above the powerful contractors that fund their campaigns and influence their elections. "The responsibility of this department first and foremost is to fight and win the nation's wars," Gates reminded them. "I know that some will take issue with individual decisions. I would ask, however, that you look beyond specific programs and instead at the full range of what we are trying to do."

Not likely, Mr. Secretary. Lawmakers are perfectly happy to reform military procurement, as long as the cuts are not made in any of their back yards. The result will inevitably be that the Pentagon is forced to fund many programs it doesn't want while shortchanging others it urgently needs.

Yesterday brought two of these NIMBY hearings to the Capitol complex. First, the House Appropriations defense subcommittee huddled with the secretary of the Army, Pete Geren, and the Army chief of staff, Gen. George Casey. Chairman Jack Murtha (D-Pa.), who has a solid reputation for giving the Pentagon things it doesn't need, was once more concerned that the war fighters didn't ask for more. "You only put $2 billion into the budget," he complained about one project. "I assume you'll ask for more money?"

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