Lawmakers ask budget office to end chokehold on Joint Strike Fighter funds

Six of the leading House members on military matters are pressing the Office of Management and Budget to remove a bureaucratic chokehold on funding for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter’s secondary engine.

The lawmakers this week wrote a letter to newly installed OMB Director Jacob Lew arguing a recent guidance, in essence preventing more government spending for the F-35 alternate engine, "does in fact impinge on the funding prerogatives of Congress." 

The lawmakers who signed the letter: Reps. Ike Skelton (D-Mo.), the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee; Buck McKeon (R-Calif.), the panel’s ranking member; as well as senior members of the panel Gene Taylor (D-Miss.), Todd Akin (R-Mo.), Roscoe Bartlett (R-Md.) and Adam Smith (D-Wash.).  

The funding for the F-35 secondary engine, made by a team of General Electric and Rolls Royce, has been a sore point between lawmakers, the White House and the Pentagon. President Obama has threatened to veto any bill that contains funding for the secondary engine. 

Both the House defense authorizers and appropriators have approved funding for the GE-Rolls Royce F136 engine. The Senate has not included any funding. None of the bills have been finalized. 

Senate and House appropriators have quietly been working on a catch-all spending bill for fiscal year 2011. A senior lawmaker told The Hill that at this point funding for the second engine is included in that omnibus legislation. The lawmaker, who has no stake in the second engine program, asked for anonymity because government spending for 2011 is still being negotiated and some decisions are still in flux. The chance for passage of a catch-all spending bill is yet to determined. 

Because Congress has not passed any spending bills this year, lawmakers so far have funded the government through another stopgap measure, or continuing resolution (CR).  

OMB issued guidance at the end of September that does not allow automatic funding for programs if "either the House or the Senate has reported or passed a bill that provides no funding for an account at the time the CR is enacted." The GE-Rolls Royce engine is funded only in the House defense authorization and appropriations bills. 

According to the guidance, Gates would have to request the OMB release funding for the secondary engine because the Senate did not include any money for it. Gates has made very clear he strongly opposes the alternate engine and has thrown his commitment behind the primary engine made by Pratt & Whitney, a unit of United Technology Corp.

With a prolonged continuing resolution likely, congressional supporters of the second engine are now looking at ways to bypass it or see it eliminated. 

In their letter, the six lawmakers called the OMB guidance an "unnecessary impediment for the Department of Defense to proceed with the F-35 alternate engine program" until the fiscal year 2011 funding is finalized. They warned Lew that the Pentagon is expected to issue a stop work order on Dec. 3, a situation they called "unacceptable" after 14 consecutive years of funding for the program. 

The Pentagon stopped requesting funds for the engine several years ago, but strong congressional support for the program and for having a backup engine ensured a steady stream of funds over the last four years. 

The lawmakers are now pressing Lew to either waive the guidance with regards to the F-35 program or remove it altogether.