EDITORIAL: Fighting terrorists with pond scum and choo-choos

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When speaking before a veterans group last month, President Obama’s words sounded simple and direct. “If Congress sends me a defense bill loaded with a bunch of pork, I will veto it,” he promised. The Democratic Congress is betting the president had his fingers crossed.

Both the House and the Senate are cooking up bills filled with $2.7 billion in pork, and not just the usual defense-related pork. A couple Democrats from Michigan have hijacked the bill to launch a second round of the auto-industry bailout, and still others are using it to fight global warming with, among others things, algae-based jet fuel.

Sen. Carl Levin and Sen. Debbie Stabenow, both Michigan Democrats, are taking a fortune away from U.S. troops for “battery development,” a “lithium iron phosphate battery system,” “hydraulic hybrid vehicles for the tactical wheeled fleet,” a “smart plug-in hybrid electric vehicle program,” and a “vehicle fuel cell and hydrogen logistics program.” Total cost: $26.5 million.

They’re not the only ones who seem confused about the purpose for defense spending. Sen. Olympia J. Snowe and Sen. Susan Collins, both moderate Republicans from Maine, are taking $1.6 million to turn trees into jet fuel, or as the Senate disclosure form puts it, “woody biomass conversion.” Not to be left out, a bipartisan pair of senators from South Dakota, Democrat Tim Johnson and Republican John Thune, have requested $3 million for almost the same thing: “Renewable jet fuel from lignocellulosic feedstocks.” Jeff Bingaman and Tom Udall, Democratic senators from New Mexico, are the guys who want our fighters to be fueled with algae.

A couple Republican senators want to back the coal industry with $1 million to a “coal transformation lab” and $5 million to the “Freedom Fuels/Coal Fuel Alliance.” There’s research on wind turbines to power forward military bases, fuel from sewage, the “Battlefield Renewable Integrated Tactical Energy System” and “wave energy harvesting.” Sen. Sam Brownback, Kansas Republican, wants $3 million for a “fuel-cell locomotive.” No doubt it is a special kind of locomotive to fight terrorists in the wilds of Afghanistan.

The $636 billion 2010 defense spending bill is, like always, a prime place for such fiscal shenanigans. Few lawmakers are willing to fight against the massive measure for fear of being called soft on national security.

Many of the earmarks in the bill are paid for by raiding defense operation and maintenance accounts. This is funding that otherwise would be spent on support training, spare parts, fuel and other needs for fighting forces on the ground in Iraq and Afghanistan. The long-used funding gambit remains particularly galling in a bill that many members will surely put forward as an example of their commitment to U.S. troops.

Boondoggles like turning trees into jet fuel are part of why Americans don’t trust Congress. If Mr. Obama kept his word and vetoed the pork-laden bill, the American public would stand by him. The reason why is simple: U.S. troops are on the ground fighting today. Trendy fuel cells and hybrids may look good in a celebrity’s driveway, but they’re useless against the Taliban.

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