Politics

Don't Ask, Don't Tell Meets the Military Industrial Complex

The House of Representatives may have voted last week to repeal the military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy. But a lot of factors could still imperil efforts to allow gays and lesbians to serve openly in the armed services.

For instance, a filibuster. Perhaps a Senate amendment.

Or President Obama’s veto pen.

What????

That’s right. Mr. Obama is threatening to veto the very bill that could lift the 17-year-old policy. Even after the president issued a statement hailing the measure.

The “legislation will help make our Armed Forces even stronger and more inclusive by allowing gay and lesbian soldiers to serve honestly and with integrity,” President Obama said.

So why the trouble?

Pin it on the Joint Strike Fighter (JSF). Specifically, efforts to build an alternate engine for the JSF.

The military contracted with Pratt & Whitney to build the JSF’s primary engine. A consortium of Rolls-Royce and GE is scheduled to construct the secondary engine. The program to build the additional engine could cost nearly $2.5 billion. The Pentagon has already forked over $2 billion to Rolls-Royce and GE. But Defense Secretary Robert Gates argues that the alternate engine is redundant. So he lobbied the president veto the entire Pentagon bill.

This is where an attempt to alter social policy could run headlong into a battle of wills over the bottom line.

And jobs.

Late last week, the House passed an annual defense policy measure. Much of the media focused on the vote that nullified the old policy that banned gays and lesbians from declaring their sexual orientation while on active duty. But lost in that debate was an amendment authored by Rep. Chellie Pingree (D-ME). Her amendment would have stricken funding to build the second JSF engine. The House defeated Pingree’s proposal 231-193. Three lawmakers voted “present.”

Moments after the House approved the overall defense bill last Friday, President Obama again threatened to veto the entire legislation, including the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal, if Congress didn't strip the funding.

“Our military does not want or need these programs being pushed by the Congress,” Mr. Obama said. “And should Congress ignore this fact, I will veto any such legislation so that it can be returned to me without those provisions.”

Whoa.

Let’s see if we have this straight. A Democratic president, who’s presided over a staggering jump in federal spending over the past year, admonishing a Democratic Congress for not tightening its fiscal belt. And that’s to say nothing of infuriating gays and lesbians who supported the president in 2008.

This is a good Washington spectacle. And it gets even better when a senior member of the House Democratic leadership team is pitted against the House Republican leadership team. Especially since the Democrats wants to slice the money and the Republicans make the case to keep it in.

But as Tip O’Neill said, all politics is local.

Pratt & Whitney is based in East Hartford, CT. So it’s no surprise that House Democratic Caucus Chairman John Larson (D-CT) is one of the most-vocal opponents of the second engine.

“Where else but in Washington, DC could the Secretary of Defense, Navy, Air Force and Marines say we don’t want this. It’s unnecessary. But Congress goes blindly ahead,” said Larson. “Congress keeps ramming it down the throat of our military.”

But as I said, all politics is local. Which may help explain why the House Republican leadership team endorses the reserve engine. A major GE plant is located minutes outside the district of House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-OH). Rolls-Royce has employees in the district of House Minority Whip Eric Cantor (R-VA). And House Republican Conference Chairman Mike Pence (R-IN) says the auxiliary engine program enables Rolls-Royce to employ more than 4,000 of his constituents.

“The essential choice before us today is competition or sole source contracting,” said Pence on the House floor. “Either we can require two companies to engage in head-to-head competition each year for the next 30 years. Or we can give one company a sole source contract worth $100 billion.”

But this is far from a Democrat versus Republican issue.

“This is about jobs,” said Rep. Michael Arcuri (D-NY). There’s a plant in his district that makes parts for the spare engine and employs about 300 people.

Yes, this is about saving jobs. But President Eisenhower called it something else: the military-industrial complex. One component of that complex is where jobs for aircraft, engines, arms and parts for weapons systems are strategically spread over a panoply of Congressional districts. That ensures that there are never the votes to slash a particular program. Otherwise, those lawmakers could be accused of voting against the economic interests of their districts. Or as Arcuri simply put it, voting against “jobs.”

That said, Republicans suggest that building two engines could actually be cheaper in the long run. Pence pointed to a General Accounting Office study that discovered building a backup systems could help lower the cost of projects. Boehner said that forgoing the extra engine “may force the government to buy a more expensive, less effective engine for decades to come.”

But John Larson rejected that theory.

“Only in Washington could producing two of everything be deemed as a cost saving,” he said.

Regardless, the House bill is done. So all attention is now trained on the Senate.

Just hours before the full House voted to repeal Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, the Senate Armed Services Committee finished crafting its defense policy package. And again, most reporters covered that panel’s decision to allow gays and lesbians to serve openly.

What many missed was a decision by the committee to kill funding for the additional JSF engine. Even though the chairman of the panel, Sen. Carl Levin (D-MI) backs the spare motor.

But a timeline for finishing the legislation is anyone’s guess. When asked when he might summon the legislation to the floor, all Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) would commit to is “later.”

Meantime, President Obama’s veto threat lingers. In fact, there’s even a “conspiracy” theory floating around. Some on Capitol Hill suggest privately that the president secretly wants a reason to veto the defense bill and prevent the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell repeal from becoming law. After all, advocates of altering the policy got their wish: a successful vote on the House floor. But that way, the president doesn’t have to take any heat for it. And Mr. Obama stood firm on a fiscal issue during an era of exploding deficits.

If the president repeals Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, that represents a shift in the military’s culture.

If President Obama vetoes the defense bill over the alternative engine, that represents a shift in the military-industrial complex.

Either way, it makes history.