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GOP votes for spending boondoggle

By John P. Avlon, CNN Contributor
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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • House defeated a bid to kill a defense spending project that Pentagon says it doesn't need
  • John Avlon says GOP critics of government spending voted for half-billion dollar project
  • He says this was a clear-cut case of a way to cut the budget deficit
  • Avlon asks how GOP can run on platform of cutting spending while supporting this project
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Editor's note: John P. Avlon is a CNN contributor and senior political columnist for The Daily Beast. He is the author of "Wingnuts: How the Lunatic Fringe is Hijacking America."

New York (CNN) -- In a time of voter anger at unsustainable government spending and Washington hypocrisy, here's a story that should get your blood up.

Last week, the House of Representatives considered eliminating a nearly half-billion dollar earmark that was snuck into a defense authorization bill. But members of both parties voted to keep the corporate pork in the bill -- despite a supposed moratorium on earmarks and despite that the Pentagon has repeatedly said it doesn't want the money.

Only in Washington would bureaucracy be force-fed a project it doesn't want or need.

But so far, we haven't seen this contempt for taxpayer dollars make its way to protest signs or talk radio driven talking points. That's because President Obama opposes the earmark and the Republican congressional leadership voted for it.

This doesn't fit neatly into the hyperpartisan narrative of screaming about socialism -- in which Republicans bewail overspending by Democrats -- but it's a perfect illustration of how deep the dysfunction is in Washington.

At issue is the alternate engine for the Joint Strike Fighter platform, a corporate subsidized boondoggle that has cost taxpayers $1.2 billion in earmarks since 2004. It is estimated to cost at least $2.9 billion more until its completion.

Defenders argue that paying GE and Rolls Royce to develop a second engine for Air Force fighters will stimulate competition in the defense industry and bring down costs in the long run while protecting jobs in the short run.

Critics point out that crony capitalism can't create a true free market in the defense industry -- it's the equivalent of diet hucksters who claim you can eat yourself fitter. This is about money: pork barrel politics hiding under the noble banner of national defense.

Here's how the sordid story unfolded:

An anonymous earmark was added to the defense authorization bill, requesting $485 million in new funds for the alternate engine program, despite a much-ballyhooed moratorium on earmarks going to for-profit entities (agreed to by Democrats), and a total ban on earmark requests agreed to by Republicans for fiscal year 2011.

In reaction, a small bipartisan group of members of Congress -- led by Democrat Chellie Pingree of Maine and Republican Tom Rooney of Florida, joined by Democrat John Larson of Connecticut and Republican Lynn Westmoreland of Georgia -- proposed an amendment to strip the bill of the ugly anonymous earmark. Their principled stand went down to defeat by a vote of 193 to 231.

It's no surprise that in a recession, the congressional representatives of Ohio and Indiana would vote to keep the earmark subsidy in the bill, including the normally stalwart fiscal conservative Mike Pence of Indiana. Those states are benefiting most from the development of the engines in terms of jobs on the ground.

What's more surprising is why so many of their colleagues would climb on this pork-barrel bandwagon, including the Republican congressional leadership led by John Boehner and Eric Cantor, who are trying to build the midterm election campaign around a promise to restore fiscal discipline.

That selling job that should be even tougher since a majority of Democrats voted to kill the alternate engine and a majority of Republicans voted to keep it going.

"This was the first big earmark test for 2010, and Congress failed," said Thomas A. Schatz, the President of Citizens Against Government Waste, which has been a steadfast critic of the alternate engine and recently released a detailed report on the subject.

"Neither party comes out looking good, but Republicans in particular missed a golden opportunity to show that they are really serious about getting government spending under control."

The next chance to stop the half-billion dollar alternate engine earmark is the Senate, when it takes up the defense authorization bill later this month. But even success there from genuine fiscal conservatives such as John McCain could be undone when the bill goes to conference -- it's the Washington way.

The final stop would be a presidential veto, which President Obama has promised, under advice from Defense Secretary Gates.

A half century ago, Republican President Eisenhower warned about the influence of the military-industrial complex.

The former five-star general crusaded against government waste, especially in the military, because he knew that a figure with lesser credibility could be attacked as being "soft on communism" for proposing responsible cuts from the Pentagon budget during the Cold War.

We are at war today on two fronts, even as we face down a fiscal crisis and escalating deficits and debt.

We owe it to our troops to see that every dollar allocated to the military is spent where they need it, not where congressional appropriators want it. And if fiscal conservative protesters cannot marshal their energy to oppose this half-billion dollar boondoggle, then it is not just Congress' hypocrisy they should be angry at -- it is their own.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of John P. Avlon.