A Veto Fight Obama Needs to Win

Washington Matters

A Veto Fight Obama Needs to Win

President Obama's first veto threat landed on deaf ears in Congress, with Democrats and Republicans pushing ahead with plans to spend billions on fighter jets the Pentagon neither wants nor needs. When the bill finally reaches the new president's desk, he ought to carry through on his threat and then make sure his decision doesn't get overturned.

At issue is the F-22 jet fighter program, a vast and expensive project that hits close to home for hundreds of lawmakers. Lockheed Martin is the primary contractor, but scores of other firms are involved in a supply chain of engine parts, avionics, fuselage sections, radar, gyroscopes, communications equipment and lots more. The program directly employs 25,000 people and helps another 90,000 stay on the job. All but six of the states have businesses that will be affected if the program is shut down.

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When the F-22 Raptor moved off the drawing boards in the early 1990s, Congress and the Pentagon planned for 762 of what was supposed to be the most advanced fighter jet in the world. That was shaved to 243 under the Bush administration as a cost saving measure, and now Obama and Defense Secretary Robert Gates want to end production with 187 planes, all but four of which have already been assembled. 

But the House and Senate are insisting on adding between seven and 12 more planes at a total cost of up to $3 billion ($400 million the first year) to keep production lines open and to lay the ground work for buying more down the road. They argue that more planes are needed, despite what the military says, and that it will give the economy a boost by preserving jobs.  


The F-22 is anything but a success story. It became operational in 2005, but no F-22 has been called to service in the two wars we're fighting in Iraq or Afghanistan. They were designed primarily for long-range air battles on the assumption that China may someday pose such a challenge. The plane has been plagued with maintenance problems, with 40 hours of work required for each hour of flying time. Lockheed Martin says the problems have been fixed, but of course the cost has ballooned over time. Sens. Carl Levin (D-MI) and John McCain (R-AZ), the chairman and ranking Republican on the Armed Services Committee agree with Obama that more planes aren't needed. 

The battle over funding is likely to stretch over months, and it will be part of a much bigger $636 billion defense bill that contains many of the Pentagon's priorities, making a veto a difficult decision. And it will take political courage to cut any jobs in the current economic climate. Some congressional leaders are predicting a compromise will be worked out before passage so no veto is needed. But if Obama backs down on this one, it will signal weakness and call into question all of his promises about reforming Pentagon acquisition policy. That would be a steep price to pay.

Update: The Senate voted 58-40 to strip out funding for additinoal F-22 fighter jets, and House supporters indicated they will probably give up the fight to produce more Raptors.