Today’s Boston Globe contains a well-crafted story by defense correspondent Brian Bender about the decision of newly-elected Massachusetts Senator Scott Brown to abandon the principles on which he campaigned to buy a prime cut of Pentagon pork. The program in question is the alternate engine for the F-35 joint strike fighter, a redundant powerplant for the single-engine plane that both the Bush and Obama administrations have labeled a waste of money. After stridently criticizing Washington’s wasteful ways for months on the campaign trail, Brown now has decided he supports spending billions of dollars on a superfluous military program to produce a handful of jobs in his home state.
The F-35 fighter already has an engine being built by Pratt & Whitney in neighboring Connecticut, and the Pentagon says one design is enough. Buying two different engines means splitting the buy between two sites and having to pay for redundant production lines, maintenance procedures and other items that will drive up the cost of the fighter across its lifetime. Proponents of General Electric’s alternate engine — which lost a series of competitions to the Pratt & Whitney propulson system — say that by building two engines, the government can have money-saving competitions. However, that is just a smokescreen for giving GE an undeserved industrial subsidy at taxpayers’ expense, which the company apparently has convinced Sen. Brown will translate into jobs for Massachusetts.
Senator Brown is new to this business, so maybe he doesn’t realize that GE has no intention of assembling its alternate engine at the plant in Lynn, Massachusetts where it is currently building the propulsion system for the Navy’s F/A-18 Super Hornet fighter. GE has been steadily reducing its industrial presence in New England for decades — unlike Pratt & Whitney — and the alternate engine will be no exception. Most of the work on the new engine will probably be done in Ohio and Indiana, or perhaps at a greenfield industrial site in some non-union state like Mississippi. So Sen. Brown has backed into wasting billions of taxpayer dollars for an unneeded program that will create a few jobs in Massachusetts while destroying many more jobs in Connecticut. Some crusader.
What this sad parable of political transformation reflects is how reformers quickly get coopted into the business-as-usual ways of Washington. The nicest thing you can say about Scott Brown’s decision to follow the path of least resistance is that he’s new to the Congress, and therefore probably doesn’t fully grasp how what he is doing undercuts his credibility as an agent of change. But there is a bottom line here: if everybody in Congress approaches their jobs the way Sen. Brown is approaching the alternate engine, nothing is going to change in Washington. Voters will continue to be alienated from their government, the national debt will keep growing, and one day our kids will get a big bill because of all the times legislators went along to get along.
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