Derrick Z. Jackson

An engine fueled by pork

By Derrick Z. Jackson
Globe Columnist / February 15, 2011

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NO BUDGET item has faced bipartisan White House opposition yet been propped up by bipartisan pork-barrel congressional support like the backup engine for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. It is a perfect example of how Washington whirs with promises of efficiency only to stall out, crippled by lobbyists and pandering politicians.

Both the Bush and Obama administrations proposed to kill the engine, calling it a redundant program. Pratt & Whitney won the contract for the primary engine, beating out a partnership of General Electric and Rolls-Royce. But in a very expensive game of sore loser, politicians in states where General Electric has plants, including Massachusetts, continued to provide massive funding against the will of both the White House and the Pentagon to develop an alternate engine. It is almost as if GE and their friends are literally waiting for a plane powered by Pratt to fall out of the sky.

The latest propping up of GE and the backup engine was provided by Senator John F. Kerry of Massachusetts. Early in January, he and fellow Senators Patrick Leahy of Vermont and Sherrod Brown of Ohio wrote Defense Secretary Robert Gates to urge him to release last year’s jerry-rigged installment of $465 million Congress approved last year for the alternate engine program.

GE says the program, if maintained, would be worth about 400 jobs at the GE plant in Lynn. Republican Senator Scott Brown supports the program, which had also been boosted by his late predecessor, Ted Kennedy. Representative John Tierney has been a vigorous supporter as well. This is despite the fact that the Globe reported last summer that the jobs related to the engine would be offset by job losses in the state because of the expiration of other contracts.

For their efforts, Kerry, Leahy, and Brown earned the “Porker of the Month’’ award from the watchdog group Citizens Against Government Waste. Gates is so opposed to the alternate engine that he has said he would “strongly recommend’’ that Obama veto a defense spending bill that contains the secondary program.

“We have recommended for several years now against funding this engine, considering it a waste of money,’’ Gates said last May. He was appointed by George W. Bush in 2006 and kept by Obama, amid broad bipartisan support. “And to argue that we should add another $3 billion in what we regard as waste to protect the billion and a half [dollars] that we believe already has been wasted, frankly, I don’t track the logic.’’

Unfortunately, it is too easy to track the logic, when GE spent $39 million last year to lobby Congress. Complicating matters further, Obama last month appointed GE CEO Jeffrey Immelt to lead a presidential panel on jobs and competitiveness. Obama said that “GE has something to teach businesses all across America,’’ as its innovation ensures “our economy isn’t held back by crumbling roads and broken-down infrastructure.’’

But termination of the alternate engine is being held back, with the help of both Massachusetts senators. Gates complained last year how the original awarding of the engine contract to Pratt & Whitney somehow became welfare for GE, “where everybody is guaranteed a piece of the action.’’

Yesterday, Obama unveiled his fiscal year 2012 budget. Once again, the budget calls for the termination of the alternate engine program, saying, “there is no need to continue to support two separate contractors.’’ It’s an engine that both a Democratic and a Republican president and their joint defense secretary say we don’t need. Given the past, expect the congressional pork barrel to oink again.

Derrick Z. Jackson can be reached at