By The Associated Press
WASHINGTON — For five years running, two presidents have tried to eliminate funding for a backup engine on a fighter jet, a program Defense Secretary Robert Gates calls unnecessary.
Congress, however, has rebuffed the White House and continues to fund the $465-million-a-year alternate engine for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, amid intense lobbying by General Electric, the corporate giant working with Rolls-Royce to develop that engine.
General Electric’s aggressive outreach ranges from running ads on the subway cars that congressional staffers take to work to deploying dozens of well-connected lobbyists to Capitol Hill and the Pentagon.
In recent weeks, as President Obama has readied a fiscal year 2012 budget that is likely to provide no funding for the second jet, managers from GE plants around the country have swarmed congressional offices to argue their case before dozens of new senators and House freshmen, many of whom were elected on a wave of voter anger with Washington’s big-spending ways.
Obama releases his budget today. The survival of the engine, first targeted for elimination by President George W. Bush in his 2007 budget, demonstrates the challenge of slashing government spending — even as the federal debt skyrockets.
The F-35, a jet that is the Pentagon’s biggest weapons program, is set to make up the lion’s share of the USA’s jet fighter force in the coming years. The stakes are high for General Electric and Rolls-Royce. Stopping development of the second engine would knock them out of the $100 billion market for the F-35 engines.
Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio)
Program targeted for elimination
The program’s supporters, including Republican House Speaker John Boehner, say it ultimately will lower costs because General Electric and Pratt & Whitney, which is developing the primary engine, would both be in position to compete for future government contracts to supply the engine once the jet is in production.
“The president has short-term issues,” says Rick Kennedy, a spokesman for GE’s aviation division. “The Congress has to make longer-term decisions, and if you can’t show your program is going to pay for itself through competition, it’s over. You go home.”
The engine is one of dozens of programs that still exist despite Obama’s calls for their elimination in his first budget.
FUNDING: Budget sets battle over cuts
They range from a $7-million-a-year program that supports gifted students to a two-person federal agency that dispenses awards to people and programs that promote discovery and “reflect the visionary spirit and pioneering heritage of Christopher Columbus.” It received $750,000 last year, according to Executive Director Judi Shellenberger.
Even as Congress grapples with a record $1.5 trillion deficit this year, lawmakers have learned that “telling people ‘no’ is not a good way to get re-elected,” says Steve Ellis, vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense. “But running annual budget deficits also is proving not a good way to get re-elected in this budget environment.”
Obama has been more successful than his predecessor in persuading Congress to eliminate programs. An independent analysis by the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget found lawmakers accepted more than 60% of the $11.5 billion Obama proposed to cut in his 2010 budget from programs that require annual congressional approval. (Lawmakers have not approved a fiscal year 2011 budget, and the government is operating at 2010 spending levels under a stopgap budget measure that includes funding for the second engine.)
By contrast, in fiscal year 2006 —Bush’s most successful budget-slashing year — Congress agreed to roughly 40% of his proposed cuts.
But the mood in Congress is markedly different this year. Republicans, who took control of the House of Representatives in November’s elections, have promised deep spending cuts, setting the stage for weeks, if not months, of confrontation with Democrats who argue that steep reductions could stall the slow economic recovery.
Against this backdrop, General Electric is working hard to make its voice heard on Capitol Hill.
Total lobbying by GE and its subsidiaries soared to $39.3 million last year, a nearly 50% increase over 2009 levels. A team of 21 in-house General Electric staffers, including former Capitol Hill and Pentagon officials, lobbied on defense issues for the company during the last three months of 2010, congressional records show.
The company also paid outside lobbyists, including former senator John Breaux, D-La., to lobby on the alternate engine last year. Breaux did not respond to interview requests.
Kennedy, the GE spokesman, says the company also has spent millions on its advertising campaign but would not disclose the dollar amount.