Should Congress cut food stamps or the F-35?
It’s not that simple, of course, but lawmakers must make billions of dollars in cuts to tame exploding federal debt by the end of the year, and Republicans and Democrats have begun wrestling again over whether to slash more funding from defense or domestic programs.
The Pentagon has already agreed to cut $450 billion over the next 10 years. An additional $550 billion is expected to be cut from defense in January, along with corresponding cuts to domestic spending, because Congress’ bipartisan “super-committee” failed last year to agree on a long-term budget that reduces the national deficit.
Congress could still make cuts elsewhere, but so far the debate has been predictably polarized.
House Republicans passed a budget in May that tore out funding for food stamps, children’s healthcare, hospitals that serve the poor, and Medicaid –– all to save the Pentagon from the automatic cuts.
That budget is dead on arrival in the Democratic-controlled Senate, but the battle could define the 2012 elections, including the presidential race.
U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta said the additional cuts could spell disaster for the country’s defense and cited weapons systems like the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.
The F-35 program should be kept fully intact, said Thompson — there are other ways to save money in the Pentagon budget.
For critics, the F-35 has become the foremost example of wasteful defense spending. The U.S. military should retool with new aircraft, but the F-35 isn’t the best tool, and it’s certainly not an affordable one, said Wheeler, who worked with national security issues on Capitol Hill for 31 years.
The plane’s advocates, like Thompson, are in a state of denial, Wheeler said. Because it’s one of the most expensive programs in the federal budget, deep cuts to the F-35 program should be on the table, he said. It’s unlikely the program will be tossed entirely, as he thinks it should be, but at least it could be cut back.
“The airplane is a disaster, and they refuse to accept that,” Wheeler said of the F-35 program’s supporters in Congress. “They’re still in the whining stage rather than acknowledging that the program is in serious, serious trouble.”
Saving money by cutting back the F-35 program isn’t so easy. The Pentagon has already rolled back its order of F-35s from 2,700 planes to 2,400.
If there is no political will to scrap the program altogether, saving money will require reducing the number of ordered planes by more than a thousand, not hundreds, said Hartung.
Technically, the Pentagon has cut about $20 billion from the program over the last two years, though that doesn’t amount to real savings, he said.
It’s just “kicking the money down the road a bit,” Hartung said. “They have to acknowledge that there’s actual problems they have to fix. But they’re still committed to $10 billion a year or so.”
Some members of Congress have grown irate. Sen. Carl Levin, a Michigan Democrat, told Bloomberg this month that he’s “got plenty of concerns” and called Boeing’s F-18 fighter jet a “backup.” Levin’s office didn’t return calls.
Boeing spokesperson Philip Carder wouldn’t comment on whether the F-18 Super Hornet is considered a backup to the F-35, but called the plane a “model program” that “delivers ahead of schedule and on-budget.” Boeing’s top fighter jet is used exclusively by the U.S. Navy, which has denied that the F-18 is a backup plan for the F-35 while simultaneously purchasing additional Super Hornets after repeated delays with the F-35 program.
That adds to fears that Lockheed’s defense contracts are in the government’s crosshairs. As a result, the company is spending plenty of money trying to convince Congress to keep it in the black.
The contractor increased its political donations by 9 percent for the 2012 election compared to 2010, according to the Federal Election Commission. The company’s political action committee spent $2.26 million, much of that going to members of Congressional defense committees.
Fort Worth’s own members of Congress got their share. U.S. Rep. Kay Granger received $35,700 from Lockheed during this election cycle. The company was her biggest contributor. The company donated only slightly less to Senator John Cornyn, who got $30,300.
Neither of them responded to calls seeking comment for this story.
In any press release from Lockheed Martin, the last paragraph mentions the 123,000 people employed by the company worldwide.
“Bang! That’s political clout,” Hellman said. “That is the tension that provides some of the momentum for maintaining programs that everybody acknowledges are of dubious merit. That tension is particularly acute right now, when any job is an important job.”
According to Lockheed Martin, the F-35 program represents more than 5,800 jobs in Fort Worth, including line workers, engineers, and support staff. It pays for another 2,000 workers at Lockheed’s two other F-35 facilities in Marietta, Ga., and Palmdale, Calif.
“If you spend money on the F-35, you’re going to have a positive effect on the Fort Worth economy, but that’s not why you’re buying it. You’re buying it to defend the economy from attackers,” Thompson said.
The workers who went on strike in Fort Worth want to make the F-35 program successful, not just because their livelihood likely depends on it, but also for their own pride as skilled builders of fighter jets, said Bob Wood, a union spokesman for District Lodge 776 of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers.
“What we should be worried about is getting the program on track,” he said. “We shouldn’t be worried about trying to take benefits from the workers.”
Ditching the F-35 doesn’t have to be a job-killer, Hellman said.
“For the same amount of money, we can buy at least as many previous, updated models,” he said. “In theory, it could create more jobs, more airplanes, cost less money. These are proven technologies.”
That would include the F-16, which Lockheed still produces in Fort Worth.
Thompson said that there are other, better ways of stimulating the economy, and though he believes the plane will ultimately be affordable, building it is about national security, not squeezing the most out of every dollar.
“Despite the persistent negativism of F-35 coverage in the national media, the program is progressing steadily,” Thompson wrote in a Forbes column this month. “That’s a good thing, because none of the U.S. military services and overseas allies participating in the program has a backup plan for maintaining air dominance if it falters.”
And therein lies the deeper truth about the F-35, Astore said. Though cutting the program altogether would be prudent, it won’t happen because producing warplanes is one of the few industries in which the U.S. still leads the world, he said.
Despite the strike and increasing pressure from the Pentagon, Lockheed’s profits grew by 20 percent in the first quarter of this year.
The F-35 is the defense equivalent of huge financial institutions that are “too big to fail,” Astore said, even when they’ve been mismanaged and their value to the nation’s health is questionable.
There’s no one competing with Lockheed, so where’s the incentive to cut costs?
“The U.S. military can bluster all they want about limiting costs,” he said, “but the reality is that Lockheed Martin is in the cockpit and flying this contract.”