Congress voted to strip federal funding for a jet engine the President doesn't want and the Pentagon says it doesn't need. The second engine for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter has long been viewed by good-government groups as the prime example of government spending and pork barrel politics run amok.
But members of the House of Representatives voted to strip funding for the spare engine Wednesday despite high-profile support from House Speaker John Boehner and other leading Congressmen.
Lawmakers are considering a stopgap bill to fund the government through the end of the year. Republicans, newly in control of the House, have laid out a slate of painful spending cuts to appease new members who align themselves with Tea Party and helped Republicans take majority control of the House in November.
The vote to strip funding was bipartisan. Republicans and Democrats voted 233-198 to amend the GOP's spending package and cut the F-35 extra-engine program. A hundred and ten House Republicans -- the majority of whom were Tea Party-affiliated freshmen -- joined 123 Democrats in defeating the bill.
A vote on final passage of the spending bill is expected Thursday evening in the House. The Senate must also approve the spending measure before funding runs out March 4. And the future of the full funding bill is far from certain. President Obama has threatened to veto the spending bill because it cuts other programs he's called important. But the vote by the House demonstrates an important step against the powerful defense lobby.
Funding for the spare F-35 engine has drawn heavy criticism from some lawmakers in Congress and the Defense Department, but enjoyed the support of the House GOP leadership. Plants that produce local jobs are located in or near the districts of the two top Republicans in the House.
Congress Cuts a Defense Program
Today, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates testified before the House Armed Services Committee that the program was wasteful and called on Congress to terminate funding beyond that cut in the amendment to the CR.
"The American taxpayers are spending $28 million a month for an excess and unjustified program that is slated for termination. The president, the military services and I continue to oppose this extra engine," Gates testified. "It would be a waste of nearly $3 billion in a time of economic distress, and the money is needed for higher-priority defense efforts."
After the amendment was approved, Congressional watchdogs quickly praised its passage as "a big victory for taxpayers."
"This was an important vote to demonstrate that nothing should be off limits when it comes to cutting wasteful spending," Ryan Alexander, President of Taxpayers for Common Sense, said. "If we're going to deal with the enormous deficits, everything has to be on the table and that certainly includes defense spending. We hope this will lead the House to further scrutinize defense, entitlements and tax expenditures. The math is straightforward; we cannot balance the books on the back on non-security discretionary spending."
For more than an hour Tuesday night on the House floor, lawmakers debated the amendment -- which would cut $450 million dollars over the next seven months.
Rep. Thomas Rooney, R-Fla., a two-term member who introduced the amendment to strike the F-35 engine, said his proposed cut would show voters that lawmakers are serious about cutting spending.
"It is dubious why Congress continues to fund a program that the Air Force, the Navy, the Marine Corps, and the Department of Defense adamantly state they do not want." Rooney said. "The American people sent us here to change the way that Washington works. This amendment is a perfect opportunity to show your constituents that business as usual in Washington is over."
Yesterday, Speaker Boehner said he believed the F-35 engine was good for competition and predicted it would actually save money in the long-run.
"I suspect there will be a healthy debate on that -- that big question," said Boehner, an Ohio Republican. "As you all know, that I believe that over the next 10 years, this will save the government money. But let's have the policy debate out in the open on the House floor and let the House work its will."
The battle over funding for the alternate engine has also grown into one of the fiercest lobbying contests in recent memory. General Electric, which stands to benefit most from the engine contract, spent $39.3 million to press its case on this issue and others last year -- up nearly 50 percent from the previous year -- making it the top corporate spender on lobbying in Washington. Rival Pratt & Whitney, through its parent company, spent roughly $14.5 million.
GE and Pratt & Whitney, which won the initial contract for the engine, have also each pumped additional millions into an advertising campaign targeting lawmakers.
Throughout the battle, GE has relied heavily on the argument that the development of rival engines would ultimately drive down prices. Its lobbyists and public relations team touted the results of an independent study from the Government Accountability Office that concluded there were potential economic benefits, in the long term, from developing two engines for the Joint Strike Fighter. Savings, the company argued, would come with competition.
And, General Electric benefited from its expansive corporate reach ? with more than 300,000 employees and 160 offices ? enabling the company's lobbyists to tell members of congress how the engine contract would generate or preserve jobs in many of their districts. Two crucial allies in the Republican leadership, House Speaker John Boehner and Majority Leader Eric Canter, both have factories near their districts where work on the engine is occurring.
Working against the company, though, has been a drumbeat from both parties about wasteful spending. Both President Obama and Defense Secretary Robert Gates turned the engine contract into a poster child for government waste, and both were strident in voicing the view that the contract should go.
"The Secretary of Defense [and] the President have made the point that this is not something we need," then-White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said in January. "I think that whenever the military tells you something that -- the military is spending money on something the military doesn't need, especially in these times, it's important we pay heed to that."