How many helicopters can you buy with $13 billion?

What's this, $13 billion to build new helicopters for President Barack Obama? That's $13 billion with a "b," putting the production of a handful of choppers to fly around the president in the same category as the entire expansion of O'Hare International Airport.

Is Obama out of his mind?

He might be, but you can't pin this gawker on him. Obama doesn't want the new helicopters and his Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has ordered the purchases terminated.

But Congress, bless its conniving soul, is gearing up to spend the money anyway. Why? The usual reason: pork. It's a case history of just how difficult it is to kill the pig, despite soaring promises of change in the way Washington does business.

In comparison, it makes Illinois' own prime cut of pork, FutureGen -- the $1 billion in federal magnanimity for an experimental Downstate power plant that hopes to burn coal cleanly -- look like pig's knuckles.

The VH-71 presidential helicopter program would buy 23 new Marine One-type helicopters, but it's six years behind schedule and costs are soaring.

But, say its backers, canceling the program now and reactivating it later to replace the aging helicopter fleet could amount to $17 billion. Some suggest that the best alternative is to pare down the order to 13 helicopters, thus saving . . . oh, what does it matter; it'll cost us billions any way you cut it.

So, what is Congress doing in the face of this conundrum? Being two-faced as usual. About a week ago, the House Armed Services Committee approved the fiscal year 2010 defense authorization bill, tucking away in it a mealy-mouthed VH-71 proviso. It approved the Obama administration's request for $84 million to shut down the program, but directed the start of design work on a new presidential helicopter, to be called VXX. Then it released a report accompanying the bill that "strongly suggests" that the administration buy a few more VH-71s than the five that already have been built. "The committee notes," the report went on, "that this approach will leverage the investment already made by the taxpayer in developing a helicopter that would meet all normal requirements of the president."

Congressional Quarterly reported that the language was inserted into the report at the behest of Rep. Roscoe G. Bartlett (R-Md.). High on the list of donors to Bartlett's political campaign is Lockheed Martin Corp., the main contractor for the VH-71. Bartlett told CQ he doesn't know who his donors are, and that he's not acting on behalf of the company. Uh huh.

Also, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) has asked the Senate Appropriations Committee to continue the VH-71 program, citing the money that has already been spent. Lockheed Martin's plant in Owego, N.Y., is the main beneficiary of the contract and if the program is scratched more than 700 jobs could be lost in upstate New York. Only a few months ago, Gillibrand replaced Hillary Clinton as one of New York's U.S. senators and apparently has quickly caught on to how the game is played.

Not that Illinois is pure in that regard. In terms of cash, Illinois' FutureGen project doesn't compare, but in chutzpah, it comes close. The project, located in Downstate Mattoon, had been initiated and then, citing cost overruns, was canceled by President George W. Bush. Perhaps because of the Bush connection, a Democratic House staff committee report took the opportunity to bash the former president, calling the project "nothing more than a public relations ploy." Environmentalists have denounced it, arguing that "dirty coal" is and always will be dirty. Yet, here come Obama and Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), reviving the project for their home state, mindful of the jobs and contracts it will bring and the tens of billions of tons of coal buried in Illinois, waiting to be scooped up and burned.

Ah yes, change we can believe in.

This column also appeared in the June 23, 2009 Chicago TribuneB


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  • If they're the swank copters our politicos are used to, $13 billion is probably just enough for almost one.

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