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A defense dilemma

Posted: Tuesday, June 15, 2010

The following editorial first appeared in the Chicago Tribune:

Good news, bad news: The U.S. House of Representatives has passed a defense authorization bill that includes a provision to lift the ban on gays serving openly in the military. It also includes a deal-breaker: $485 million to develop a fighter jet engine that the Pentagon doesn't need or want.

That project has been dissed by President Barack Obama - and before him by President George W. Bush. "The Defense Department is already pleased with the engine it has," Obama said last year. "That's why the Pentagon stopped requesting this funding two years ago."

Obama promised to veto the bill if it hits his desk with the wasteful spending attached. Defense Secretary Robert Gates has urged him to keep that promise, even after the House added the amendment repealing "don't ask, don't tell."

Things are going to get interesting when the Senate takes up its version, which so far doesn't include either item. Some lawmakers who don't necessarily support spending money on the engine are likely to go along with it because they want to torpedo the repeal of the gay soldier ban.

We hope it doesn't come to that. There's a lot of good in the House measure, including money for anti-terrorism programs, funding for security projects in Afghanistan, raises for the troops and yes, that "don't ask, don't tell" repeal, which we support. But if the Senate goes along with the House bill, Obama's choice is clear: Spike it.

The American people support a military that includes openly gay troops. An ABC/Washington Post survey recently found 75 percent in favor - up from 44 percent in 1993, when "don't ask, don't tell" was enacted.

Top military brass and rank-and-file personnel increasingly reject the notion that openly gay service members harm morale or unit cohesiveness. "Don't ask, don't tell" is discriminatory and costly, depriving the country of the service of untold thousands of qualified troops. We are confident it will be repealed.

But we can't see spending billions of dollars on a redundant jet engine just to hurry things along. The $485 million isn't the end of it, by far: Finishing the job would require further appropriations totaling $3 billion or more by 2015.

Military leaders say they're happy with the engine being built by Pratt & Whitney for the new F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. The second engine would be built by General Electric Co. and Rolls-Royce. The argument supposedly is that having two versions creates competition, which ensures a better product - and lower costs - over the long haul.

That would be nice if the taxpayers had unlimited money, as Congress often seems to believe. Here's the reality: Money spent developing extra engines means less is available for actual jets. It's a pretty easy choice.

What this is really about is protecting jobs in congressional districts where the redundant engine would be built. In other words, it's an earmark. It's the sort of wasteful spending that plays well at home, but these are not the kinds of jobs America needs, and the President was right to promise a veto.

Some lawmakers hope they can force his hand by holding the "don't ask, don't tell" repeal hostage. The ransom is $3 billion and counting, Mr. President. Don't pay it.



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