By John T. Bennett - 02/19/11 05:00 PM EST
Despite a Pentagon denial that Defense Department officials directly lobbied members of Congress to kill funding for an F-35 fighter engine, at least one lawmaker is keeping the issue alive.
Rep. Roscoe Bartlett (R-Md.), House Armed Services tactical air and land forces subcommittee chairman, on Friday provided Defense Secretary Robert Gates information he claims may show that Pentagon officials illegally lobbied members.
These emails “appear to have been unsolicited and targeted to newly-elected members of Congress who might have been influenced by information provided by the Department of Defense in advance of a key vote on funding for the Joint Strike Fighter’s competitive engine,” Bartlett wrote.
The documents, obtained by The Hill, were unsigned and undated, but contained a stamp saying they were "prepared by the Department of Defense.”
“This unfortunate incident is a troubling development,” Bartlett’s letter said.
House sources said the information papers went to multiple new members. Steve Walsh, a spokesman for Rep. Vicky Hartzler (R-Mo.) confirmed Friday that her office "was among the offices receiving communication from the Department of Defense regarding the F-35."
At issue, according to Bartlett, is section 8014 of the 2011 Continuing Resolution Appropriations Act, which states: “None of the funds made available by this Act shall be used in any way, directly or indirectly, to influence congressional action on any legislation or appropriation matters pending before the Congress.”
The sender of that electronic communication, a member of the Pentagon’s legislative office, replied through a spokeswoman that such information drops to Congress are routine practice.
"We have received the letter and will formally respond to it, but I can tell you right now there is nothing unusual nor improper about the information papers we provided to members of Congress on this issue," Pentagon Press Secretary Geoff Morrell said on Friday.
Rolls-Royce and General Electric are building the alternate engine; Pratt & Whitney is working on the primary power plant. For its part, the Rolls-GE team is vowing to fight on, also noting this week’s vote was merely one more battle in a years-long fight to keep the program alive.
House GOP sources also are showing few signs of letting the matter fade away, noting Wednesday’s vote on the engine funding may be the first this year in a number of such decision points. Both chambers could vote on funding for the second engine a number of times as lawmakers work on both 2011 and 2012 defense appropriations measures, and again when they vote on 2012 Pentagon authorization legislation.
“Years from now, members will look back on this vote and question whether they were well-served by the information they got,” one congressional aide said Friday.
Several hours before the full House voted last Wednesday to strip funding for the F-35 alternate engine from a 2011 defense spending measure, House GOP lawmakers and aides charged DoD had sent lawmakers an information paper arguing against the second power plant.
During a House Armed Services Committee hearing that day, Bartlett first questioned Gates about whether the Pentagon violated the law by directly lobbying lawmakers on the engine fight.
Gates told Bartlett during the hearing he had no knowledge of the documents.
The Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD) and the military services have legislative affairs offices on Capitol Hill. One Defense official said late last week that those shops “send stuff like this [to lawmakers] all the time.”
In a statement released Wednesday following the hearing exchange, Morrell said these “information papers … inform them of the department's position on important issues.”
The lack of a date or signature also is not uncommon, Morrell said.
Morrell downplayed the contents of the documents, which “represent the secretary's and department's position. … These documents are not inconsistent with our previous public statements."
Neither Bartlett nor the Armed Services Committee have yet to receive a formal response from the Pentagon, House sources said.
Congressional aides on Friday were quick to note that the DoD-produced papers were not supplied to the Armed Services Committee.
“We requested them,” the aide said, “but they wouldn’t cough them up.”
A HASC aide verified those charges to The Hill, adding: "It's probably because we're educated on the program."
HASC Ranking Member Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.) told reporters on Thursday it is in bounds to ask questions about the alleged incident. "But this is not something I would spend a lot of time on," he added.