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Behind the battle over the F-35 fighter engine

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Thursday, June 10, 2010

The Pentagon doesn't want it. Defense Secretary Robert Gates says it's unnecessary. Former president George W. Bush was against it, as is Barack Obama, who has threatened to veto a defense authorization bill that includes it.

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So why have so many House leaders voted for a $485 million "earmark" for General Electric and Rolls-Royce for continued development of an alternate engine for a military jet, the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter?

In a rare turn of bipartisanship amid promises to cut spending and trim the deficit, everyone from Blue Dog Democrats to members of the Progressive Caucus to the Republican Study Committee (RSC) approved funding the extra engine. What gives?

From this, one might infer that those voting for the engine have done so irresponsibly. So goes the spin coming from Capitol Hill the past few days, compliments of Pratt & Whitney, the company that builds the engine currently being used in the F-35, under an exclusive contract that gives the company a monopoly.

I was one of the media people targeted by the Pratt & Whitney PR machinery. An e-mail arrived in my inbox making the case for principles being compromised by congressional leaders.

Included in the e-mail was the following information:

Of the 32 RSC members who signed the "no earmarks" pledge, 17 voted for the engine fund, including RSC Chairman Tom Price (Ga.), Minority Leader John Boehner (Ohio), Minority Whip Eric Cantor (Va.) and Republican Conference Chair Mike Pence (Ind.).

There's nothing terribly surprising about Republicans voting for a pro-market, defense-enhancing item. On the other hand, at a time when cost-cutting isn't so much an option as an imperative, why not avoid duplication and spend development funds elsewhere -- or not at all?

Reading on: Twenty-three House members of the Blue Dog Coalition, who have vowed to cut spending, voted for the "earmark." The same goes for 29 members of the Progressive Caucus, including two of the vice chairs, Democratic Reps. Diane Watson (Calif.) and Dennis Kucinich (Ohio).

Wait, peace-love-and-doves Kucinich voted for it? Something smelled fishier than the ruined shores of the Gulf of Mexico.

Conspiracy theories abound. One popular among conservatives is that Pratt & Whitney is working with the watchdog group Citizens Against Government Waste to characterize those who voted for the "earmark" as spendthrifts liberated from principle. A screen grab of a pro-Pratt & Whitney ad produced by CAGW shows that it was paid for by Pratt & Whitney. The St. Petersburg Times reported that both parties said the "slip" was a mistake.

Erin Dick, a Pratt & Whitney spokeswoman, told me in an e-mail that "as a matter of company policy, we do not disclose the organizations we support." Other groups opposing the extra engine include Taxpayers for Common Sense, the Center for American Progress, the Project on Government Oversight and the Lexington Institute.

There may be legitimate reasons to oppose the extra engine, but there is also another way of viewing the votes in favor. I like to call it the free market, where competition often leads to lower costs and better quality. The Government Accountability Office, which studied the issue, concluded that though the alternative engine program would cost significantly more than a sole-source program, it could in the long run reduce costs by as much as 12 percent.

Practically speaking, there is also the real concern that having just one engine could compromise national security. Under the current, sole-source arrangement, by 2035, the F-35 would be responsible for 95 percent of our fighter attack force, according to the Institute for Defense Analyses.

Finally, though the funding is being characterized by opponents as an earmark, it is nothing of the kind. Under House rules, an earmark is a request to authorize or appropriate money to a specific entity or locality in a way that thwarts the competitive process. Congress has been funding the second engine for years to ensure competition, and the Armed Services Committee has long supported this competition as a national security imperative on a bipartisan basis.

Whether GE/Rolls-Royce or Pratt & Whitney can make a better engine or whether we need a backup engine is for others to determine. The Senate defense bill, which has been approved in committee, does not include funding for the extra engine and has yet to reach the Senate floor. But nowhere does competition make more sense -- and "spin" less sense -- than with our instruments of defense.

Sometimes an earmark is good for you. And sometimes a watchdog can be a fox.


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