At first glance, it seems like a Senate fight over military spending that Barack Obama cannot possibly lose.
The president, whose job approval rating remains high despite the troublesome economy, has threatened to veto further production of the Air Force's F-22 Raptor (the average cost of each high-tech, high-end fighter plane is about $350 million) while his respected Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has suggested that the unneeded jet (originally conceived at the height of the Cold War) is mired in 20th military thinking. Not only is Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin staunchly opposed to the F-22, but he is joined in the appropriations struggle by the senior Republican on the committee, none other than a former flyboy named John McCain.
But even with a 60-vote Democratic Senate majority and Republican cover in the form of McCain, the administration may well lose on a vote early this week to cut $1.75 billion in F-22 funding from the defense bill. The reason for the political popularity of the F-22 (designed to prevail in aerial dog fights against the former Soviet Union) has little to do with military necessity. It all comes down to what Lockheed Martin, the F-22's lead contractor, estimates as 25,000 direct and 70,000 indirect jobs.
The problem for Obama is that too many liberal Democrats (including Ted Kennedy, John Kerry and Chris Dodd) come from states which are home to some of the nearly 1000 contractors involved the production of the F-22. The engines for the jet fighter, for example, are built by Pratt & Whitney in Middletown, Connecticut.
Small wonder that Dodd – who is facing a difficult 2010 reelection fight in Connecticut – stressed his support for the F-22 in a June 25 letter which hyperbolically claimed that halting production "would put our military strategy at high risk in the near to medium term." Exactly what high-tech threat Dodd is referring to (I didn't know the Taliban had an air force) remains unclear. Beyond global military strategy, there is also a more politically potent factor as Dodd warned that "further cuts will only result in the loss of thousands of American jobs." Joe Lieberman -- Connecticut's other senator who normally aligns himself with McCain on defense issues – also supports the F-22.
There is nothing secret about the way that pork-barrel politics has been traditionally played with the Pentagon budget. Defense contractors adroitly spread the work among as many states and congressional districts as possible to guarantee the broadest possible political coalition in Congress if the project's funding is ever in jeopardy. Why should any of this change just because the federal budget deficit is reckoned in the trillions? With unemployment pushing 10 percent, it is particularly difficult for senators to risk being accused of costing their state jobs.
In short, continued F-22 funding is being treated as if it were a vital cog in the economic stimulus package. George Republican Sen. Johnny Isakson warned that "many local economies and thousands of workers would be devastated" if production were halted. Big surprise: Lockheed Martin has a major facility in Marietta, Georgia, that is responsible for the overall integration of the weapons systems aboard the F-22.
What is strange about the entire F-22 debate is that Obama's own economic stimulus plan is being held to a much higher standard. Every project funded under the $787-billion plan has to be justified as not only sparking the economy but also worth the cost. The Republican National Committee revels in highlighting every news story that makes stimulus spending sound ludicrous, such as $16 million slated to protect the San Francisco Bay habitat of the endangered salt march harvest mouse. And a new RNC video ridicules the Obama recovery program with dire graphics that warn, "Stimulus Money Squandered on Fraud and Wasteful Spending. Not on Creating New Jobs."
This raises a political mystery: Why is it more fiscally prudent to continue to squander billions on Cold War weaponry than to fund projects explicitly designed to create jobs? The Obama stimulus plan has its faults – it was perhaps too small to give the moribund economy the lift it needed, and too much of its spending will be delayed until next year –but it is politically incoherent to denounce the stimulus as wasteful while embracing an unneeded jet fighter because it provides jobs.
The F-22 vote is almost certain to get lost amid Monday's fixation with the start of the Sonia Sotomayor confirmation hearings. The television cameras will eagerly record every rambling senatorial statement about "the rule of law," the "majesty of the Supreme Court" and the "inspiration" provided by Sotomayor's life story. But while the F-22 fight lacks the glamour of the first Latina nominated to the Supreme Court, the vote on funding the jet plane will provide an intriguing test for Obama about what having a 60-vote Senate majority really means.
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