There has been a lot of talk this election year about how important it is to re-elect Susan Collins because of what she does for Bath Iron Works.

It’s a myth. First, let’s dispose of the idea that Collins is unique. Every federal elected official in Maine supports BIW. It is the fourth largest employer in the state, with about 7,000 employees. Chellie Pingree, Angus King, Jared Golden, even Sara Gideon all support BIW. Even I do, living 10 miles away from the yard and liking a healthy Navy. Shoot, it’s political suicide in a small state like Maine to say anything else.

Second, there is a particularly phony assertion she is making that she had a hand in ending the recent strike at BIW. Several BIW workers assert this in a recent Collins political ad. Only to be shot down by a representative of Local 6 at BIW, who says Sen. Collins was unresponsive to union requests for assistance in the strike.

But basically, what Collins is saying is that her seniority and seat on the Appropriations Committee is such a powerful asset that it should not be thrown away for a junior member of the Senate, which is what Sarah Gideon would be. If the Senate stays Republican, she might even become Appropriations Committee chair.

This power position, she says, has allowed her to deliver billions of dollars in contracts to BIW over her career. Sounds very compelling. Except that she has little to do with how money and contracts arrive at BIW.

Here’s the hidden secret she doesn’t want to reveal. Being an appropriator doesn’t really let her “bring home the bacon” for BIW. It just allows her to take credit.

The Washington DC money game lets politicians take credit for what the military already plans and wants. The Navy creates a long-term plan for the ships it needs; not Sen. Collins. The plan takes into account the private shipbuilding capacity the Navy wants to build those ships. The Navy, not Sen. Collins, plans a budget for those ships.

When I did defense budgets for the White House for five years the game was played with submarine shipyards. The Navy wanted to keep two shipyards alive, just enough capacity to keep building subs. Instead of the sensible solution of down-sizing to one sub yard, we went for the “King Solomon” solution – cut the sub in two parts; make one end in Connecticut and the other in Virginia. It was a Navy/White House decision. We let the politicians take the credit; kept the friends happy.

Likewise, the Navy wants two yards to make destroyers – one here and one in Mississippi – and get a little price break swinging one ship a year back and forth. Given this understanding, BIW is nowhere near death, rather it has a lifetime guarantee, thanks to the Navy.

Senators have precious little to do with getting contracts, moreover. The services award contracts, not the Congress. And generally, the services get more than 95% of the funds they ask for, so it’s their plan that is being funded.

Ah, you say, so, what about that other 5%? if Sen. Collins got an additional destroyer into the budget, doesn’t that mean she brought that slice of bacon home? This is where the budgetary kabuki gets interesting.

The Navy does not always ask Congress for everything it wants. But they informally let the appropriators know what they would like to have. This informal notification process is a political “win-win.” The Navy gets the additional ship or equipment it covets and the Senator or House member claims credit for adding it to the Navy’s budget.

I saw this up close in 1997 when President Clinton had the authority (quickly declared unconstitutional) to veto specific items in the appropriations bills. He killed 39 military construction projects because the services had not asked for them, but the appropriators had put them in the spending bill.

Congress went ballistic. It turned out the services were deliberately leaving some projects out of their budget request, but informally telling the appropriators they would love to have them. When Congress added them to the budget, the members took the credit.

I cannot say adding a specific destroyer in a specific year followed this dance. But I can say that Sen. Collins knows the dance; she has been an appropriator a long time.

In reality, Sen. Collins would be no different from any other federal elected official when it comes to bacon. She knows the Navy is in charge and she knows the moves. And she knows how to exaggerate her impact in an election year.

Gordon Adams is Professor Emeritus at the School of International Service, American University. From 1993-97, he was Associate Director for National Security Programs at the Office of Management and Budget in Washington, DC. He lives in Brunswick.

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