The big-money lobbying battle over an engine — or two — for a new U.S. fighter jet has enlisted some of the biggest players on K Street. But with the issue poised for a pivotal vote in the House next week, the most influential advocates on either side collect their paychecks from Congress, not big defense contractors.
“The ... contract for the Pratt & Whitney engine is 50 percent over the initial 2001 estimate,” House Armed Services Committee staff member Doug Roach, an expert on the engine subject, wrote in a lengthy e-mail to numerous fellow Hill defense aides and some off-the-Hill contacts. “The Pratt engine will take private sector jobs to Turkey and Poland,” he added in the Jan. 16 e-mail.
Roach was echoing the views of panel Chairman Buck McKeon (R-Calif.) and ranking member Adam Smith (D-Wash.), who both strongly support production of an alternate engine made by General Electric and Rolls-Royce for the new F-35 military aircraft, dubbed the Joint Strike Fighter. Rival contractor Pratt & Whitney is building the bulk of the plane’s engines, and the Pentagon and President Barack Obama have said money for a second engine should be cut.
Rep. Tom Rooney is the leading advocate on Capitol Hill for cutting the GE engine, and he plans to step up his lobbying of his colleagues, many of them freshman lawmakers, over the next few days. The Florida Republican is trying to gin up support for an amendment that he will offer to a larger budget bill as early as Tuesday or Wednesday to strike $450 million in funding for the alternate engine.
But McKeon, Smith and Roach have the support of many Members of Congress, including Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio).
Rooney, who also sits on Armed Services, has lost this battle before and admits his amendment won’t pass easily.
“For me, this isn’t about GE vs. Pratt or the typical territorial battles,” Rooney said Friday in an interview. “We have been sent to Washington to cut spending. Although it might be nice to have two engines or three or four, we can’t afford it.”
Rooney said he is keeping his message simple and fiscally based. Even though he has characterized the GE engine funding as an “earmark” in years past, he said he is shying away from that this go-around.
“To the new people that might not have time to get into the weeds as I have ... this is a great opportunity to let the American people know it’s not business and lobbying as usual in Washington,” the Congressman added. “We’ve gotten ideas of who’s sort of on the fence, and I’ll go sit with them and talk with them. I’m giving [them] my cell phone to call over the weekend.”
Staffers, lobbyists and Members who support the alternate engine argue that having a second one will help keep both contractors responsive and will ultimately save money. Each jet would only carry one engine, so the idea is that the two companies would compete for each order. A spokesman for Boehner explained that the Speaker, “along with the chairman of the Armed Services Committee and a strong, bipartisan majority in House,” supports the program. He cited a Government Accountability Office report that says the alternative engine will save taxpayer money in the long term.
Josh Holly, spokesman for the House Armed Services Committee, said the panel “respects the view of all Members.”
But he noted that, based on past votes, the committee has supported the two-engine option for the Joint Strike Fighter.
Most of the Members think “it lowers the cost of the overall program and will lead to increased power in the engines,” Holly added.
Despite the heavy hitters under the Dome who are pressing this issue, Pratt & Whitney and GE maintain impressive rosters of outside lobbyists and message makers.
And in recent weeks, three sources said, GE has tapped new help on the alternate engine fight, including former Rep. Richard Gephardt (D-Mo.), who runs Gephardt Government Relations, and former top House GOP leadership aide Susan Hirschmann, a principal at Williams & Jensen. Gephardt previously lobbied for GE on the merger of its then-division NBC and Comcast.
For its part, Pratt & Whitney has the quiet help of Ed Gillespie, the former protege to then-Rep. Dick Armey (R-Texas) and one-time counselor to President George W. Bush. Gillespie is not registered to lobby on behalf of Pratt & Whitney or its parent company, United Technologies, but three sources said he is doing nonlobbying communications work on the engine issue.
The firms registered to lobby for Pratt & Whitney or United Technologies include bipartisan shops Mehlman Vogel Castagnetti, Ogilvy Government Relations, the Podesta Group and Wexler & Walker Public Policy Associates. The company also has Park Strategies, the firm of former Sen. Alfonse D’Amato (R-N.Y.), on retainer.
The GE side, in addition to a large in-house roster of lobbyists, sends work to former Senators-turned-lobbyists John Breaux (D-La.) and Trent Lott (R-Miss.), who last year merged their firm into Patton Boggs. Clark & Weinstock, Michael N. Matton & Associates, Robison International and Tassey & Associates also report working for GE, as does Hogan Lovells’ Candida Wolff, who was Bush’s top Congressional liaison.
In all, GE reported spending a little more than $39 million on lobbying last year, while United Technologies reported $14.5 million for its 2010 federal lobbying.
Flying in the Lobbyists
GE has also brought in managers from more than a dozen of its aviation manufacturing plants around the country. They plan to be on the Hill all this week, GE Aviation spokesman Rick Kennedy said.
“They have converged on Washington,” he said. “They have reached out and met every single new Member of Congress and Senator. Those guys are good at explaining how you save money by competing the engines. We say if we can’t more than pay for ourselves, we’ll go home.”
Kennedy added that part of the reason the stakes are so high is because the new F-35 is slated to replace about 90 percent of the country’s single-engine fighter planes.
“Emotions run high on this,” said one lobbyist involved in the fight on Pratt’s side. “It really gets people’s blood boiling.”
Rooney, a former prosecutor, said the alternate engine debate often triggers passion, but he pledged to stay calm.
“I’m not trying to be combative,” he said. “Once you lose your cool, then you’ve lost your argument.”