Republicans made major gains in Tuesday’s midterm elections by promising to rein in federal spending. You can understand why voters might be concerned about spending, because the federal government is borrowing a billion more dollars every six hours just to make ends meet. But during the election campaign, the only thing most Republicans were willing to say they would cut was taxes — which would make the deficit worse. Their excuse for not being more specific was that Democrats would use any promised program cuts against them in the election. Well, the election is over, so now we get to see whether the Republicans are really going to change things, or just be part of the problem.
Early Republican votes on a handful of issues will tell the story. Take the so-called “alternate engine” for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. General Electric wants billions of dollars to develop a second engine for the single-engine plane, so the government can hold competitions each year to see who gets to build most of the engines for that year’s planes. The Bush and Obama administrations both concluded this would be a waste of taxpayer money since they already have an engine that works fine. No other plane developed in the last 25 years has had competing engines, and no other item on the F-35 fighter is being competed between two suppliers.
The extra engine really is a waste of money. Like the ads General Electric runs highlighting Ronald Reagan — a fellow they fired from a popular television program before he went into politics — GE’s rationalizations for buying their redundant engine are highly misleading. For instance, they say competition is needed to hold down government costs, but first the government has to spend over $5 billion so GE can develop the engine, and then it needs to give them more money in each of the following 20 years to keep them in the business. After all, you can’t have competition if one of the two suppliers exits the business!
So why is incoming House Speaker John Boehner supporting the GE engine? Because it would bring jobs to his district, which adjoins the district where GE’s biggest engine plant is located. Hundreds of people who voted for Boehner will benefit from the program. That’s quite a bargain — a few hundred votes for a few billion dollars. Now you know why we have a budget deficit in the first place.
So here’s the bottom line on the Republicans and deficit reduction: if the incoming Speaker of the House isn’t willing to give up this homestate boondoggle for the cause of deficit reduction, then it’s a safe bet none of the other Republicans will be inclined to make sacrifices either. Like Massachusetts Republican Senator Scott Brown, the big reformer, who decided to back the same program in order to preserve a few hundred jobs in Massachusetts — largely by stealing them from neighboring Connecticut, where GE’s competitor builds its engine.
If John Boehner still plans to back the extra engine in the next Congress, that will tell us a lot about how serious Republicans were when they pledged to cut federal spending. Watch closely.
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