By Kevin Mille
A political push by a Mississippi lawmaker to bring more jobs to a Pascagoula shipyard could trigger a similar push for another destroyer contract for Maine’s Bath Iron Works because of an obscure, 12-year-old agreement negotiated by the Navy and the two competing shipbuilders.
The U.S. House of Representatives on Thursday ignored the Pentagon’s spending requests and approved a $600 billion defense authorization bill peppered with projects that cater to lawmakers’ local constituencies. Among them was an $800 million down payment on an amphibious warship – known as a landing platform dock, or LPD – inserted by Mississippi Republican Rep. Steven Palazzo, whose district includes Ingalls Shipbuilding yard, where the ship would be constructed.
The Senate Armed Services Committee also announced Thursday the completion of its version of the bill, which backs several Pentagon proposals while breaking with the administration on some weapons, the Associated Press reported. The Senate version also includes the Mississippi ship contract language, although details hadn’t been released Thursday.
Because of the agreement, the Mississippi shipyard’s contract, should it survive in a final bill, might require a similar windfall for BIW. The 2002 agreement between the two shipyards and the Navy awarded four future amphibious ship contracts to Mississippi and four future DDG-51 destroyer contracts to BIW.
Final funding for either ship contract would have to be approved by House and Senate appropriations committees.
BIW spokesman Jim DeMartini acknowledged the existence of the 2002 agreement but otherwise declined to discuss the potential implications should the amphibious ship funding be approved.
But Maine Sens. Angus King, an independent, and Republican Susan Collins – both of whom serve on committees that oversee defense spending – are talking to Pentagon officials about the issue. Spokesmen for both senators said they interpret the 2002 agreement as requiring another destroyer to be awarded to BIW if the Mississippi shipyard receives a new contract.
“It is Senator King’s belief – which has been recently confirmed by the Navy – that the 2002 (memorandum of understanding), reaffirmed by the parties in 2009, is still in effect and that, per that understanding, the award of an additional LPD requires the Navy to award an additional DDG-51 destroyer to Bath Iron Works,” King spokesman Scott Ogden wrote in an email to the Portland Press Herald. “Senator King will continue his dialogue with the Navy on this issue and will continue to review the situation closely.”
Collins’ spokesman Kevin Kelley said the senator spoke with the Navy’s top acquisitions officer, Assistant Secretary Sean Stackley, who said the agreement remains in effect. Kelley said Collins will work closely with King – a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee – “to evaluate what action is necessary to address this important issue.”
The addition of the $800 million for the amphibious warship is just one example of the role that regional political interests play in decisions about how and where the Pentagon spends its money.
The highest-profile departures from the Pentagon’s budget request in the House bill would reject requests to initiate another round of military base closures and to retire the antiquated A-10 Warthog – a close air support plane popular with ground troops and pilots because of its combat effectiveness.
Gordon Adams, a professor of international relations at American University and former senior national security budget official in the Clinton White House, said Congress changes the Pentagon’s budget proposal every year. But the changes are more pronounced this year, as they have been at other times when tight federal budgets force the Defense Department to try to scale back spending, which in turn would bring a loss of defense-contracting jobs.
“Quite typically, the House has reversed course on the Pentagon priorities and the reason is, of course, local interest,” said Adams, who owns a home in Brunswick. “This is all about local goodies and not about the Pentagon’s priorities.”
Maine Rep. Chellie Pingree, a Democrat who represents Bath, opposed the House defense authorization bill in large part over concerns about $79 billion in war spending in Afghanistan. But Pingree also expressed concerns about the House committee’s lack of acknowledgment of the 2002 agreement with BIW.
Pingree spokesman Willy Ritch said Pingree remains “deeply concerned” about spending $800 million on a ship that the Navy did not request. He also said the sequestration budget cuts threatened a fifth Arleigh Burke destroyer contract at BIW until Congress and the Navy found money to close a funding gap.
“Considering the current budget climate . . . this would put more pressure on other funding priorities within the Defense Department, and that is what concerns her,” Ritch said.
Pingree voted against the House bill, and Rep. Mike Michaud, D-Maine, voted to approve it.
It is still too early to say whether the final defense authorization bill will include a 12th amphibious ship. Both the House and Senate versions would authorize spending for destroyers already contracted to both BIW and the Pascagoula shipyard, although final spending decisions are made by congressional appropriations committees.
According to a 2002 Defense Department news release touting the agreement, the ship swap would improve efficiency, save taxpayers money and help BIW, Pascagoula and a related shipyard in Avondale, La.
“The signing of this MOU and the new DDG multi-year together stabilize the workload at three shipyards – Ingalls, Bath, and Avondale and provide a solid plan for almost $20 billion of Navy shipbuilding,” John Young Jr., then an assistant secretary of the Navy, said in a statement. “This agreement is a win-win-win for both shipbuilders and the Navy.”
Only three of the four amphibious ships covered by the deal were built. But Palazzo led an effort on the House Armed Services Committee this spring to include $800 million in fiscal year 2015 for another ship.
Laura Chambers Crist, a spokeswoman in Palazzo’s Washington office, said the authorization for the additional amphibious ship was included in the House proposal “in response to strong interest from Navy and Marine Corps leadership.” She did not respond to questions about the 2002 agreement, saying Congress was not a party to that deal.
Adams, the former senior official in President Clinton’s Office of Management and Budget, predicted a difficult road ahead for defense officials as they grapple with shrinking budgets. Every major cut sought by the Pentagon – as well as many small ones – will be resisted by members of Congress intent on defending local interests.
“This will be trench warfare over the next two to three years between the Congress and the executive branch” and, by extension, the Pentagon, Adams said. “It will be trench by trench.”