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On the trail of defense spending

July 10, 2009 - by Avelino Maestas

RaptorI was reading an article in the Washington Post this morning that raised a number of interesting questions for me. Specifically, the article is about the F-22 fighter jet that’s at the center of a high-profile showdown between President Barack Obama’s administration and Congress. Obama and Defense Secretary Robert Gates want to halt further production of the advanced (and costly) fighters, while many members of Congress want to continue building them.

According to the article, in addition to the high costs to develop and build each plane, the Air Force is seeing the cost to maintain the jets increase over time:

The Air Force says the F-22 cost $44,259 per flying hour in 2008; the Office of the Secretary of Defense said the figure was $49,808. The F-15, the F-22’s predecessor, has a fleet average cost of $30,818.

What’s so striking to me, about this entire story, is the lack of information. The figures above come from two different sources, but which is correct? The Air Force seemingly wants to continue ordering F-22s (Air Combat Cmdr. John D.W. Corley said 381 are necessary; Sec. Gates put the number at 187), and might that be the reason behind the lower figure? I don’t know who to believe.

And what about Congress? What is their role in the situation? Well, last month the House Armed Services Committee voted to continue F-22 production to the tune of $369 million, for 12 planes, in FY 2011. They included the funding in the FY 2010 Defense Appropriations bill (H.R. 2647), which the full House approved on June 25.

This is where things get interesting for the concerned citizen. Say you want to know which members of the House Armed Services Committee voted to approve the F-22 funding? If it were a full House vote, like the one above, OpenCongress would have the data. But since the vote took place during committee mark-up, it’s up to the committee to decide how to publish the information. Unfortunately for citizen sleuths, this particular roll-call is tucked into a Committee Report on H.R. 2647, which was published as a PDF. The vote, as you can see below, is definitely not in a searchable format, and not something you could export and run through other tools easily:

That’s a razor-thin margin to resurrect a program that neither the Secretary of Defense nor the President of the Unites States wants to continue. Travis Sharp did a great job of looking at the context behind the six Democratic “Aye” votes on the amendment, but what if we took that research a little further? I used a new Sunlight Foundation tool called Congrelate to look into the fundraising behind the members of the House Armed Services Committee (Congrelate is still in alpha testing, but here’s a link to that data, which you can also find on each member’s individual OpenCongress profile page).

Of those Democratic Representatives who voted for the F-22 funding, five received campaign contributions from the “defense aerospace” industry during 2008: Rep. Bobby Bright received $5,000; Rep. Joe Courtney, $29,000; Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, $27,750; Rep. James Marshall, $30,000; and Rep. Mike McIntyre, $11,000.

I guess this is a round about way of saying that, while we’ve come along way in recent years to putting data and information about Congress at your fingertips, we’re still a long way off. OpenCongress and Congrelate are both pretty cutting edge tools when they have data to work with, but information like committee votes is still buried in PDFs.

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