I was taken aback on Saturday when I learned that a package of deep cuts by House Republicans in hundreds of critically important federal programs included a $450 million increase for a Defense Department project that is opposed by the Pentagon. As a column I published yesterday demonstrates, the project would have an extraordinarily large impact on the economy of two neighboring cities in Ohio; Cincinnati and Dayton. It so happens the new Republican Speaker of the House, Rep. John Boehner was born and grew up in Cincinnati and now represents a Western Ohio Congressional District in which Dayton is the largest City.
The project involves the Pentagon’s procurement of jet engines for various versions of the new F-35 fighter. The problem that General Electric Aviation, the company that wants to sell the engine, and the political and business leaders in Ohio who want the jobs created by the engine sales face, is that they don’t have an engine. As a result they want the federal government to pay them to develop an engine. Meanwhile buried in the details of the explanatory sheets accompanying this legislation is a $225 million earmark in the Navy budget and another $225 million earmark in the Air Force budget that would make those two services write the checks.
One reason the Pentagon is upset by this is that they already have a perfectly good engine and they believe the cost of helping GE and its partner, British owned Rolls Royce Group, come up with an alternative would eventually be more than $2 billion—money they argue they would never get back as the result of having two producers rather than one.
How does this square with the speaker’s repeated proclamations that we must cut spending and we must eliminate earmarks? The $450 billion this provision would send to facilities in Dayton and elsewhere would do a lot to the harshness of the cuts proposed in other parts of this same legislation—cuts like the support of local law enforcement or reductions in food safety inspections that affect every single community in America.
But more troubling still is the apparent duplicity on earmarks. I will concede that no one has a precise definition of the term. So, the old adage, “if it walks like a duck,” applies. In my mind an earmark is a decision to spend money for a particular purpose when the motivation is based more on local parochial concerns than on the needs of the country as a whole. Looks like a duck to me.
Scott Lilly is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and a former Democratic clerk and staff director of the House Appropriations Committee.
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