BARNEY FRANK’S position on the F-35 fighter jet is, in a word, complicated. He’s taking a strong stand against wasteful defense spending, demanding that a deficit-reduction commission consider defense cuts as well as domestic programs. At the same time, he’s voting with the Massachusetts delegation to build a backup engine for the F-35 at a plant in Lynn, even though the military says the engine isn’t needed. Then again, he says, if the entire F-35 program were on the chopping block, he’d vote to cut it.
“They have my vote, not my head,’’ he said of those who want to spend $3 billion on the backup engine, basically admitting that he’s putting parochial concerns ahead of the national interest.
This may make him fodder for jokes, but it’s a courageous departure from what the typical member of Congress does: pretend that every penny of defense spending in his or her home state is essential to the very survival of the republic. Frank’s position on the F-35 sounds unprincipled and inconsistent because the nation’s system of defense procurement is unprincipled and inconsistent. His open acknowledgement of his dual loyalties is a cry for help. He’s showing everyone why the system needs to be reformed — why Congress shouldn’t allow piecemeal votes on programs that the military doesn’t want or need.
Frank’s recent effort to call attention to waste in the Defense Department is not a liberal attack on the military: Such defense stalwarts as Donald Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney, Robert Gates, and John McCain have all railed more or less fruitlessly against the funding of unnecessary weapons systems. Yet Congress maintains its funding system for exactly the pork-barrel, jobs-for-the-home-folk reason that Frank is supporting the backup F-35 engine. Members of Congress trade votes to keep plants open in all corners of the country, even if what’s being made is unnecessary for national defense. Defense contractors understand the political forces, and ruthlessly manipulate them for their own advantages.
Once built, the unneeded weapons systems require billions of additional dollars in maintenance, training, and warehousing. Not only does the unwanted hardware pile up; it takes dollars away from vital national security programs that have been historically underfunded — such as the effort to lock down nuclear materials in the former Soviet Union. (Alas, there’s no congressional district in Siberia.)
The system of defense procurement is one of those problems that absolutely everyone in Washington knows about, but only a few have the courage to confront. Acknowledging a problem is the first step toward fixing it. If more members of Congress were willing to fess up to their divided loyalties, as Frank has, the country would be better off.