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The alternative engine – the not-so-little engine that wouldn't go away

By Van Hipp
web posted February 21, 2011

The federal government's penchant for wasting taxpayer money is nothing new.  Sadly, it's what we've come to expect. 

And while the infamous $436 hammers and $600 toilet seats are distant memories, the current crop of federal spending excesses are…  well, downright excessive.  Some of the best examples from 2010 include: $112 million doled out by the IRS to prisoners filing fraudulent tax returns; over $15 million to help operate an elaborate shooting range outside of Las Vegas that's losing money; and $2.5 million spent on an advertisement during last year's Super Bowl to promote the 2010 Census.  

That doesn't exactly sound like a government that's all too concerned about a federal deficit north of $14 trillion and growing. 

But with a new year underway, a new-look Congress controlling the purse strings and the promise for a good dose of fiscal sanity on Capitol Hill, those days are over – right?  We may know soon enough. 

An early test for the 112th Congress will come in the area of defense spending.  At question is funding for a second, unnecessary, unneeded and unwanted engine for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. 

Almost 10 years ago, Pratt & Whitney won the competition to produce the engine for the mammoth weapons program – beating out competitor General Electric in the process.  And while GE's engine lost to Pratt & Whitney's fair and square, you'd never know it.  Shockingly, both have continued to receive federal dollars over the past decade to produce two separate engines for one aircraft line.  How's this possible?  Welcome to Washington, DC. 

True, the Pentagon did request funding for both versions of the engine during the first few years in the event the Pratt & Whitney product wasn't up to snuff.  But that period has come and gone, and the Pratt & Whitney engine has met all expectations and then some. 

In fact, the Pentagon has been the most vocal critic of Congress' wasteful check-writing to GE for the engine it doesn't want.  Just last summer, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said, "The Bush Administration opposed this engine.  The Obama Administration opposes it.  We have recommended for several years now against funding this engine, considering it a waste of money.  And to argue that we should add another $3 billion in what we regard as waste to protect the $1.5 billion that we believe already has been wasted, frankly, I don't track the logic." 

Well put Mr. Secretary.  And about that $3 billion, that's roughly the amount the Pentagon estimates GE will need to complete its version of the F-35 engine. 

Enter the 112th Congress. 

With the historic election of 2010 sweeping so many 'Tea Party'-approved fiscal conservatives into office, it would seem this taxpayer-funded GE gravy train may be pulling into the station for the last time.  Let's hope so.  Unfortunately, before this congress was seated, $430 million was included for GE's duplicative engine in the December congressional stopgap spending measure.  Nevertheless, the real battle still looms ahead. 

Lobbyists for the corporate giant have already started making their case.  Armed with a misguided message that more federal funding for an alternative engine at this stage will only yield a less-costly final product, GE's K Street brigade is charging Capitol Hill.  That barrage coupled with President Obama's move last month to hire GE CEO Jeffrey Immelt to head the President's Council on Jobs and Competitiveness gives cause for concern.  

One thing does seem clear: the next turn in this wasteful saga will hinge on the fortitude of the fiscally-conservative freshmen of the 112th Congress. 

GE and their hired guns are counting on the newly minted Republicans in both chambers (87 in the House and 13 in the Senate) to help maintain the status quo and throw more money at GE's not-so-little engine that wouldn't go away.  And the American taxpayers who sent them to Washington to fight this very type of waste are depending on them to do otherwise. ESR

Van D. Hipp, Jr. is the former Deputy Assistant Secretary of the U.S. Army.  He served last week as the moderator of the Defense Panel at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Washington, DC.

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