March 11, 2010

Defense requests kindle spending debate

DIETER BRADBURY

— By

click image to enlarge

John Patriquin/Staff Photographer; Friday, April,17, 2009. Applied Thermal Sciences in Sanford president Karl Hoose with his company's new HiPer TEC opposed free piston engine that is being evaluated for use by the Navy.

click image to enlarge

John Patriquin/Staff Photographer; Friday, April,17, 2009. Applied Thermal Sciences in Sanford president Karl Hoose with his company's new HiPer TEC opposed free piston engine that is being evaluated for use by the Navy.

Political Correspondent

At an Army testing ground in New Jersey last week, researchers were showing off a new unmanned ground vehicle that began life in a garage in York County.

Invented by brothers Mike and Geoff Howe, who are from Lebanon, the tank-like Ripsaw can be equipped with sensory devices and weapons and sent into dangerous areas to check for mines, bombs or other potential threats without risking the lives of troops.

To help develop the Ripsaw, 1st District U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, a Democrat, has submitted a $7 million request for funding to the House Appropriations Committee. The request is one of about 35 defense-related spending proposals costing a total of $320 million that Pingree and 2nd District U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud, also a Democrat, have submitted for review.

Among those requests, known as earmarks, are about two dozen proposals to fund work on new technologies that could make their way into future weapons systems or other military gear.

Such earmarks lie at the center of an ongoing reform movement, fueled by allegations that they represent pork-barrel projects that reward local companies at the expense of federal taxpayers.

But many of the projects funded in Maine provide well-paying design and fabrication jobs, and a number have created spinoff companies that are manufacturing innovative new products.

''Maine in the last five years has taken a huge step up to develop these technologies,'' said Mike Howe, a co-founder of Howe and Howe Technologies in Eliot. ''A lot of that has been from our senators and congressmen who have seen the capabilities of these businesses to make a lot of difference.''

The Ripsaw is a track-driven vehicle operated with a computer and joystick that can travel at speeds up to 60 mph and navigate rough terrain. Commercial versions are used by SWAT teams in the West and by coal mining companies for underground transportation.

Popular Science magazine selected Ripsaw as the invention of the year last year, and a photo of the vehicle will grace the cover of the June issue.

The Army is exploring the potential of such vehicles, and about 10 companies -- including Howe and Howe Technologies -- are competing to develop an effective design.

The Howe brothers received a $1.25 million earmark in the 2007 Defense Appropriations bill, then got another $2.2 million in 2008 and $1.2 million last fall.

They say they don't expect to get the full $7 million they are seeking this year. But even partial funding would enable them to make improvements and support critical Army testing, they say.

Two years ago, the brothers were the company's only employees. But Howe and Howe now employs 16 people, and the payroll would jump to 50 if the full funding request were granted.

''Basically, we're graduating from research and development stuff to the production run,'' said Geoff Howe. ''Let's not stop funding it now.''

END RUN AROUND BIDDING PROCESS?

The Ripsaw is just one example of technological innovation or production that Pingree and Michaud hope to fund with defense earmarks.

Other research proposals include: $9 million to a Sanford company for new engine designs for unmanned Navy surface ships and a short-duration test flight facility for high-speed aircraft engines; and $6 million to Portland Valve for a new type of fire-suppression valve for Navy destroyers.

The University of Maine would receive $18 million for three projects that would extend the development and deployment of wood composite panels. The panels are used in tents and other shelters to protect troops from shell fragments and bullets.

Pingree and Michaud posted 299 earmark requests online earlier this month in response to new rules developed by the House Appropriations Committee. The requests include both defense and non-defense spending proposals.

Maine's two Republican U.S. senators, Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins, will have to post their earmarks beginning later this month under separate Senate Appropriations Committee rules.

Congress made the new rules in response to mounting criticism from reform groups, which have long contended that earmarks are politically motivated, or promote spending that helps local companies but may not benefit taxpayers or square with larger federal policies.

One reform group, Washington-based Taxpayers for Common Sense, tracks earmarks closely and makes information about them available in a free online database. The organization takes a particularly strong stand against defense earmarks.

''Essentially, they subvert the procurement process, which is all about competitive bidding for needs,'' said Steve Ellis, the group's vice president. ''Lawmakers have identified the need and the product, and they are dictating that product to the Department of Defense.''

Earmarks can force the Defense Department to fund projects that it didn't request, said Todd Harrison, a fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments in Washington.

He said experience shows that earmarks provide support to worthwhile projects that the Defense Department should have included in its budget.

VETTING PROCEDURE DEFENDED

Daniel Goure, vice president for defense studies at the Lexington Institute, a policy think tank in Arlington, Va., said earmarks are often drawn from an ''unfunded priorities list'' maintained by military services.

These lists include items the Army, Navy or Air Force thinks are important but that the Defense Department chose not to include in its funding request to Congress.

''Oftentimes a congressman will look at that list and pick something for his district and tell himself he's helping national security,'' Goure said.

Pingree drew from the Navy's list with a request for a $6 million earmark for the Washburn & Doughty shipyard in East Boothbay.

The funding would buy three small boats the Navy uses to protect large ships from attacks by small, fast boats while the ships are in port or transit.

''Funding restraints have forced the Navy to defer procurement'' of the small boats, according to the earmark request Pingree posted online.

Willy Ritch, spokesman for Pingree, said all of the earmark requests were carefully reviewed. Public discussions of the funding took place at a Portland workshop, he said, and Pingree's office sent representatives to visit the sites of some earmark recipients.

Ritch said that Pingree, who is in her first year in Congress, hopes to improve on the earmarking process, partly by involving the public more extensively in reviewing requests.

In evaluating earmarks, ''her emphasis was on saving or creating jobs, long-term economic development and community-based projects,'' he said.

Maine defense contractors say they are painfully aware of the controversy surrounding earmarks, including the infamous ''Bridge to Nowhere,'' a $398 million request for a span to an Alaskan island with an international airport and about 50 residents.

''There are good projects, and there are bad projects,'' said Habib Dagher, who heads the composites center at the University of Maine.

Founded in 1996, the center has developed a global reputation, with support from the federal government, for developing wood composite materials for defense and commercial uses.

About 140 people work in the lab at the center, which has provided technical assistance to 80 companies and spun off about 12 new commercial ventures.

''These are projects that were funded after a very good vetting process,'' he said.

FIRM: 'WE'RE ALL TAXPAYERS, TOO'

Applied Thermal Sciences in Sanford would get two projects funded through earmarks, including a $5 million proposal to continue development of a high-efficiency engine for the Navy.

Karl Hoose, the company's president, said he employs about 25 engineers, office and technical staff, including many University of Maine graduates.

Hoose said the government has put about $5 million into his engine so far, and he looks forward to tweaking the design, running it through tests and beginning production.

''I really think that publicizing these requests is probably the best way to reduce the number of pork-barrel programs that suck taxpayer money out with no benefit downstream,'' he said.

Portland Valve, which makes valves for Bath Iron Works and other defense contractors, would receive $6 million for development of a fire-suppression valve for DDG-51 Navy destroyers.

About 50 people work at the Portland Valve plant in South Portland, which has been owned since 2004 by Colfax, a publicly traded international company. All of Portland Valve's business is with the Defense Department, said plant manager Chuck Keller.

He said the Defense Department asked for the new valve, which includes sensors and activation technology that automates damage control from fire and doesn't require sailors to be present.

''We try to work with (the government) in providing the products that they ask for at the most efficient and cost-effective means possible,'' he said. ''We're all taxpayers, too.''

Harrison, the analyst for the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, said the research and development projects Congress funds through earmarks can result in innovation.

He noted that, ultimately, questions about where to spend taxpayer dollars on defense are policy decisions that the Constitution places in the hands of Congress.

''Do we build this kind of widget or that kind of widget?'' he asked. ''The Department of Defense can make their decisions, and Congress can override it -- and that's a natural part of the political process.''

Political Correspondent Dieter Bradbury can be contacted at 791-6329 or at:

dbradbury@pressherald.com

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