President Obama and Defense Secretary Robert Gates are trying to curtail wasteful defense projects, which in many cases are nothing more than congressional earmarks that are laundered through the Pentagon. Such projects thus acquire a “national security” sheen that makes them tough to fight.
A good example would be the “second-engine” contract for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program. The Pentagon has an engine it considers reliable already under production at Pratt & Whitney, but Congress is insisting that it also proceed with a second engine, this one built by GE and Rolls-Royce, “just in case.”
The House has insisted on funding the second-engine program; Obama has threatened to veto the measure if it comes to his desk in a defense spending bill, and I hope he makes good on that threat if necessary.
Not surprisingly, the defense industry is lobbying like crazy to keep taxpayers’ money flowing their way. I’m no fan of Kentucky Senate candidate Rand Paul, but on this issue, he makes a lot of sense. Under his plan, any company with $1 million or more in federal contracts must voluntarily surrender their right to lobby government or make campaign contributions. As he notes, “It is galling that companies can receive billion-dollar no-bid contracts, then turn around and spend millions on lobbyists, who immediately begin to plead, “Please, sir, can I have some more, sir?”
In fact, Politico points out that Gates and Obama might be able tap into the Tea Party movement as allies on this particular issue:
“Key tea party players, on and off Capitol Hill, are expressing a willingness to put the Pentagon budget on the chopping block if it will help rein in federal spending and eliminate a projected trillion-dollar-plus budget deficit.
Although generally hawkish and conservative with a libertarian streak — “we’re for strong defense” is an oft-repeated mantra in the movement — tea party leaders and allies contacted by POLITICO said that both fairness and common sense dictate that the military budget be scrutinized for such cuts, a view that puts them in sync with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and some of the most liberal members of Congress.
“Everything is on the table,” insisted Mark Meckler, a national coordinator with the group Tea Party Patriots. “I have yet to hear anyone say, ‘We can’t touch defense spending,’ or any other issue. … Any tea partier who says something else lacks integrity.”
“Possibly, the tea party movement could help in that regard,” said Rep. Paul Broun (R-Ga.), a tea party favorite, when asked about whether tea partiers would back Gates.
“Most of these people want to look at all federal spending and put it all on the table. They want to spend on strong defense, they want to support our troops, but they want to get rid of all the fluff, the fraud, the abuse, the waste in the federal government. They want to see the federal government shrink in size.”
Broun, a bitter critic of Obama — and no fan of Gates or the history of U.S. military intervention since World War II, including NATO — said the country “cannot be a protector of the whole world. We cannot do that any longer. We don’t have the money to do it anyway.”
I’m also no fan of Broun, but that last point is important. We have committed ourselves to the role of global policeman even though we no longer have the economic dominance to sustain that role, and it’s going to be fascinating to see how that imbalance is rectified over the next decade or so.
Politico also quotes U.S. Rep. Mike Pence, an Indiana Republican, Tea Party favorite and chairman of the House Republican Conference, as stating that “if we are going to put our fiscal house in order, everything has to be on the table. We have to be willing to look at domestic spending, we have to be able to look at entitlements, and we have to look at defense.”
That’s nice in theory. Then there’s reality:
“Pence, however, supports the second engine for the F-35 JSF. Rolls-Royce — which has secured the first procurement contract related to the F-35 — is the second-largest employer in the Hoosier state. The company has more than 4,000 employees in the Indianapolis area alone, demonstrating once again that all politics is local, even for tea party backers.”
I also suspect that if push ever came to shove on this issue, you could silence Tea Party calls for lower defense spending pretty quickly with a few false appeals to patriotism and national pride in playing global sheriff.