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Editorial: Potential Bradley loss highlights politics vs. fiscal restraint

The federal government spends too much money, inefficiently and wastefully. And we've known for decades that one of the worst-offending areas is national defense. Remember those $640 toilet seats and $400 hammers?

Between knowing the problem and getting a grip on it, though, yawns a gap wider than the Atlantic and Pacific oceans put together. The name of that chasm is politics.

In the midstate right now, the tug of war between fiscal responsibility and political pragmatism is gearing up. Faced with the end of production for the Bradley Fighting Vehicle, BAE Systems hopes to extend the program and keep its York County factory alive. If production shuts down in 2014 as the Army plans, 250 local jobs will be affected as well as 7,000 nationally and about 600 suppliers, the company says.

BAE proposes slowing output of the Bradleys to one or so a day, to keep the line "warm," so that when the Army reorders in 2017, it will be ready to go. Restarting the line "cold" would cost $750 million, the company says, versus about $100 million a year to preserve both readiness and all those jobs.

But this case illustrates the distorted business model endemic to the defense industry that makes it nearly impossible for the government to rein in expenses. Decisions aren't based on what the market — i.e., the Pentagon, in this case — needs. Rather, politicians fearful of losing votes back home tell the customer what he's going to get.

Pennsylvania's two U.S. senators already are anticipating an Army report due May 1 on the Bradley, and, as Sen. Bob Casey said, "I have confidence that the report will see the value of the Bradley industrial base both in terms of the role that it plays for our military and southcentral Pennsylvania's economy."(Italics ours.)

It's more than likely that the final decision on the Bradley will depend on how successfully BAE can lobby Congress.

Just ask the U.S. Air Force how that works. Ready to transition away from the C-130 Hercules transport plane during the Carter Administration in the 1970s, the service was stymied when Lockheed Martin appealed to its representatives and Congress subsequently decided to pay for hundreds more C-130s than the Air Force asked for. A version of the plan remains in production.

We don't fault BAE for lobbying to keep the Army's dollars coming in. It would be crazy not to. And we don't look forward to the resulting hit to the midstate economy if it fails.

But until those elected to Congress start making decisions based on the big picture, we'll continue to see out-of-control budgets and taxes higher than they need to be.

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