WASHINGTON - Throughout the past year -- perhaps even longer -- the Obama administration and the Pentagon have made a point of showing their eagerness to cut excess fat off the defense budget. One of the primary targets of their fiscal rectitude has been funding for an alternate-engine program for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.
Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has advocated killing the program, calling it wasteful and unnecessary. President Obama has threatened to veto it. And at various stages, lawmakers on the Hill have defied them both. In July, for example, the House defense appropriations subcommittee included $485 million in an appropriations bill to keep the engine alive.
This week, the showdown came to a dramatic pitch, but it seems likely that only one side has shown up for the fight. The omnibus spending bill, as Hill aides confirm, now being considered by Congress includes $450 million to keep the alternate-engine program for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter -- a defiance, as has been noted, of the White House's and Pentagon's long-standing objectives.
And yet, instead of registering indignation, the Pentagon has formally endorsed the final package. On Wednesday, Gates put out a statement "strongly" urging Congress to approve the omnibus "rather than requiring that the Department of Defense operate under a year-long continuing resolution."
"To do otherwise would leave the Department without the resources and flexibility needed to meet vital military requirements," Gates said.
The Obama administration has also reportedly told Congress to pass the bill.
Asked for further clarification about the department's position on the F-35 alternate engine, a Pentagon Press Secretary Geoff Morrell replied, "Secretary Gates' position on the extra engine is well known and unchanged: the department does not need it and cannot afford it. Opposition to the extra engine and support for an omnibus spending bill need not be mutually exclusive."
A White House spokesman referred back to the Pentagon's comment.
The budget hawks were quick to pounce.
"By stuffing this wasteful project into the omnibus lawmakers are daring the President to follow through on his veto promise," said Stephen Ellis, Vice President for Taxpayers for Common Sense. "It just so shows how, too often, parochial politics trumps sound fiscal policy."
"The silence from the White House on the F-35 funding, not to mention the 6,714 other earmarks, is telling," said Mattie Corrao, Executive Director of the Center for Fiscal Accountability, an affiliate of Americans for Tax Reform. "Last year, the President decried the massive omnibus approach to funding the government. This is another example of how the Administration fails to deliver when its feet are held to the fire on fiscal responsibility."
Criticism of the F-35 funding falls, naturally, under the umbrella of both ATR and Taxpayers for Common Sense's organizational dictums. And lawmakers who support the project would contend that there is value to the spending -- jobs, after all, are created in building those engines, and it seems quite likely that both General Electric and Rolls Royce (the companies who build the engine) have noted the number of plants in the various congressional district that would benefit.
The more noteworthy and compelling criticism being leveled against the inclusion of the F-35 funding is, rather, the political one. The administration, as a prominent Democratic operative reasoned in an email to The Huffington Post, had been cornered (badly) into a awful place with regards to spending priorities.
"Next year we will be told that we have to make cuts in programs we care a great deal about, that help the people who aren't celebrating Christmas this year because they can't afford it... We will be looking at republican proposals for 2008 levels in discretionary spending, which to most of the world means cutting Pell Grants, student loans, food stamps, job training, etc. But we will be paying to protect a $450 million earmark in this year's omnibus ($3 billion over the next few years) to go to one of the world's richest corporations - oh yes, the one that it was recently disclosed got all those billions from the Fed in 2008."
UPDATE: This post was updated to properly reflect Gates' position overall position on the defense budget. While the Secretary does want to cut wasteful spending he has not, as Morrell noted, "advocated "trimming" the defense budget." Rather he's pushed for "slow, steady growth."