By R. Jeffrey Smith
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 30, 2009; A01
The Democratic-controlled House is poised to give the Pentagon dozens of new ships, planes, helicopters and armored vehicles that Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates says the military does not need to fund next year, acting in many cases in response to defense industry pressures and campaign contributions under an approach he has decried as "business as usual" and vowed to help end.
The unwanted equipment in a military spending bill expected to come to a vote on the House floor Thursday or Friday has a price tag of at least $6.9 billion.
The White House has said that some but not all of the extra expenditures could draw a presidential veto of the Defense Department's entire $636 billion budget for 2010, and it sent a message to House lawmakers Tuesday urging them to cut expenditures for items that "duplicate existing programs, or that have outlived their usefulness."
While the administration won a big victory when the Senate voted July 21 to end the F-22 fighter-jet program, the House's imminent action demonstrates its continued rebellion on many other Obama administration military spending priorities. Gates continues to struggle with lawmakers on both sides of the aisle who are loyal to existing military programs benefiting contractors that provide jobs and large campaign donations.
House appropriators want to buy, for example, extra C-17 transport planes and F-18 jets, as well as four extra military jets used by lawmakers and Pentagon VIPs. And they want to keep alive a troubled missile-defense interceptor program and continue the troubled VH-71 presidential helicopter program.
Gates vowed in April to fundamentally overhaul the military's "approach to procurement, acquisition and contracting" and urged Congress to support the termination of many traditional weapons programs in favor of more spending on counterinsurgency efforts and operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. In this round, those Democratic and Republican lawmakers who support maintaining or expanding programs that Gates proposed to eliminate or trim appear likely to prevail, because an unusually restrictive rule for floor debate agreed upon Wednesday will allow only amendments that could strip less than half of the spending the administration did not request.
Roughly $2.75 billion of the extra funds -- all of which were unanimously approved in an 18-minute markup Monday by the House Appropriations Committee -- would finance "earmarks," or projects demanded by individual lawmakers that the Pentagon did not request. About half of that amount reflects spending requested by private firms, including 95 companies or related political action committees that donated a total of $789,190 in the past 2 1/2 years to members of the appropriations subcommittee on defense, according to an analysis by Taxpayers for Common Sense, a nonprofit watchdog group.
Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), a government-spending critic who has long campaigned against such earmarks, has said he will try again Thursday to strike all such spending. But his prior earmark-stripping efforts have succeeded only once in dozens of attempts, and never on defense spending.
"Simply put, Members of Congress should not have the ability to award no-bid contracts" to private firms, Flake said in a statement explaining the 540 proposed amendments he plans to bring up. "The practice has created an ethical cloud over Congress, and it needs to end." He noted that at least 70 of the earmarks are for former clients of the PMA Group, a lobbying firm close to appropriations subcommittee head John P. Murtha (D-Pa.) that is now being probed by the Justice Department and the House ethics committee.
Although President Obama has repeatedly criticized earmarks, the White House statement of policy on the House bill obliquely criticized only "programs that fund narrowly focused activities." No mention was made of items such as a proposed $8 million Defense Department grant Murtha inserted for Argon ST, a Pennsylvania military contractor that has contributed $35,200 to him in the past four years, or of a $5 million grant Rep. C.W. Bill Young (R-Fla.) inserted for DRS Technologies, a Florida contractor that has contributed $46,350 to Young during that period, according to Taxpayers for Common Sense.
The White House criticized the addition of $80 million for the Kinetic Energy Interceptor program, which Gates and other Pentagon officials have said is technically troubled, behind schedule, and billions of dollars over budget. But Northrop Grumman, the principal contractor, is building a technology center in Murtha's district that would bring 150 related jobs, and Murtha's subcommittee sought its continuation as a way "to recoup the technology," according to an appropriations staff member, who was not authorized to speak on the record.
A spokesman for Murtha did not reply to a request for comment.
In its letter to the House, the White House also specifically targeted the committee's addition of $400 million to finish five VH-71 presidential helicopters. Obama has said he does not want them, and Gates ridiculed them in a July 16 speech in Chicago as helicopters that "cost nearly half a billion dollars each" and would enable the president to "cook dinner while in flight under nuclear attack."
Murtha countered a week later that he was upset at the idea that the Pentagon would spend $3.2 billion on such a program and "get nothing out of it," adding: "That's unacceptable." He also suggested in a session with defense reporters that the Pentagon really did not want to kill the VH-1: "It's not the Defense Department. The Defense Department is speaking for the White House," he said.
Many lawmakers have similarly argued that despite what Gates and his top appointees have been saying, the military services have repeatedly let them know they want to continue programs formally stricken from the Pentagon's budget request. Gates tried to restrict such behind-the-scenes lobbying for weeks after his April announcement, but he eventually relented under sharp criticism from lawmakers and contractors.
Regarding the disputed C-17 transport aircraft, for example, senior defense officials have formally testified that those purchased in previous years, in combination with upgraded C-5 aircraft, will be sufficient to meet any conceivable military needs. But the committee added $674 million for three unwanted planes because "the Air Force will say on the record that they don't support it, but if you ask them off the record if they will actually use the planes, they will say, 'Absolutely,' " said a House staff member who also was not allowed to speak on the record.
Political action committees affiliated with Boeing, the C-17's principal manufacturer, donated $161,500 to House defense appropriations subcommittee members since the beginning of 2007, according to Taxpayers for Common Sense.
Staff researcher Madonna Lebling contributed to this report.