General Electric’s F-136: Down but Not Out

Was I wrong. In a January post, I confidently stated that “newly elected House Republicans are not going to stop the F-136”. Yesterday they did, stripping funding for GE’s alternate propulsion system for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter from HR1, the continuing resolution for 2011.

House Armed Services Committee member Tom Rooney, a Florida Republican, sponsored the amendment. 47 Republican freshmen bucked their party’s leadership – Boehner, Cantor, and House whip Kevin McCarthy — and voted with Rooney. This led Colin Clark, who blogs over at DoDBuzz, to see yesterday’s 233-198 vote as a victory for the Tea Party and other “other deficit conscious Republicans.” Clark cites an email from defense analyst Loren Thompson:

“This shows how election of Tea Party Republicans has changed the political calculus in Congress.”…“Proponents of the second engine argued it could save the government money by enabling competition, but members were more impressed by the up-front cost of funding a second production line and supply network.” It also “really puts [House] Speaker [John] Boehner on the spot, because he was a leading proponent of pork-barrel spending that would have benefited his district. He doesn’t look like he’s in tune with the dominant trend in his party.”

“Now we know just how much Congress has changed since the November elections,” writes Clark, who thinks the F-136 vote might represent “a tipping point” for the Defense Budget generally. But that’s a pretty big leap, and the notion that meaningful cost-cutting is really “the dominant trend” in the Republican party is open to debate.

After all, the F-136 was an easy target. Secretary Gates didn’t want it; the Air Force didn’t want it; the President didn’t want it. It was egregious example, a symbol of the excesses of the Military Industrial Complex. Rooney brags that over the long term this single cut will save taxpayers “over $3 billion,” but more immediately it cuts $450 million – a fairly insignificant number in the world of DoD appropriations. Indeed, if HR1 marks a tipping point, it is most likely in other areas, such as transportation, education, funding for the arts and domestic programs.

It’s also unlikely that the vote on the F-136 will go the same way in the Senate. (Here I go, making another prediction.) GE will continue to “press the case for competition,” a spokesperson said. That probably will mean some negotiating behind closed doors for Jeffrey Immelt, whose appointment last month to lead the President’s Council on Jobs and Competitiveness marked the crowning achievement of a $39.3 million dollar GE 2010 lobbying campaign, $9 million of which was spent on lobbying for the F-136. Mr. Immelt would be remiss if he did not take this opportunity to champion competition.

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