The plane truth about wasted taxpayer money

     In this image provided by Northrop Grumman Corp. a pre-production model of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter is shown. (AP Photo/Northrop Grumman, file)

    In this image provided by Northrop Grumman Corp. a pre-production model of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter is shown. (AP Photo/Northrop Grumman, file)

    Oh man, what a mess: A botched design, squabbling contractors, lousy administration oversight, computer glitches and delays, taxpayer money down the drain … but this is not about the Obamacare website.

    Yes, the website is a mess in all the aforementioned ways, and there’s no excuse. (Indeed, when Health Secretary Kathleen Sebelius insisted this week that President Obama didn’t know about the pre-launch screwups, I had to wonder: Did he ask?) And yes, the GOP’s Obamacare haters have every right to harrumph; as House member Fred Upton mused the other day, “How did all this taxpayer money get wasted.”

    But let’s put this episode in proper perspective.

    If the Republicans really want to talk about wasted tax bucks, they should be stewing about the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter warplane – the worst boondoggle in Pentagon history (current cost- $400 billion), a fleet that’s currently seven years behind schedule, plagued by persistent software woes, key components that don’t work (helmets, engines, you name it)…and a projected final price tag of $1.5 trillion. Which easily tops the entire GDP of Spain. Or Australia.

    That’s not a typo: $1.5 trillion. The maximum projected Obamacare website price tag is $150 million.

    How often do Republicans gnash their teeth about the F-35 boondoggle? Aside from John McCain – who has called it “disgraceful” and “outrageous” – virtually none of them have uttered a peep of protest.

    (Quick digression: The conservative echo chamber has been recycling a lie about the Obamacare site – no surprise there – falsely claiming that the taxpayer tab exceeds $600 million. It all started with an erroneous report from something called Digital Trends. GOP House member David Camp, chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, has assailed the White House for “spending over $600 million.” Usual suspect Sean Hannity fumed on his infauxtainment show, “Who pays $634 million and has three years and screws it up that bad?” These people should at least get their facts straight. CGI Federal, the prime contractor, got $93 million to build the website. It has received roughly $600 million for all its government projects going back seven years – as some conservative journalists have admirably conceded. And whatever the figure is, it’s a fraction of the F-35.)

    So where’s the outrage about the F-35? Republicans talk so much about an Obamacare “train wreck,” but we never hear about the plane wreck.

    The nonpartisan Government Accountability Office calculated the trillion-dollar price tag (folks, that’s roughly the cost of the entire Iraq war), and a GAO expert recently told reporters, “They began the program before they understood the requirements.” Which sounds a lot like the Obamacare website team – but at a fraction of the F-35’s cost.

    Republicans fancy themselves to be the foes of “big government” and wasted tax money. So how come they’re all worked up about a wasted hundred million for a website, but just peachy about a projected waste of $1.5 trillion – so peachy that they’ve actually created a Joint Strike Fighter Caucus (24 of its 25 House members are Republicans) to further promote the F-35? This, despite the fact that the F-35 project has flourished in what ex-Pentagon chief Robert Gates called “the culture of endless money.”

    But you know the answer already. While a health care website is treated like a political pinata, a Pentagon boondoggle gets the kind of political protection that accrues to sacred cows. Republicans are rooting for the website to fail, whereas they view the F-35 as too big too fail. They hate “big government” when it’s trying to help the uninsured, but they happily indulge “big government” when it’s putting jobs in their districts. (In the red state of Texas alone, roughly 41,000 jobs hinge on the F-35 project.)

    So when you hear the Obamacare haters lament the website’s waste of taxpayer money, you should view it in perspective. I’m not suggesting that the website’s woes aren’t grist for investigation – on the contrary, oversight is essential; the taxpayer shouldn’t get screwed, regardless of the amount – but we should remember that the most monumental wastage typically occurs in the public sector where the “small government” crowd prefers to be deaf, dumb, and blind.

    ——-

    Follow me on Twitter, @dickpolman1

    Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

    It will take 126,000 members this year for great news and programs to thrive. Help us get to 100% of the goal.