PERHAPS THE most unexpected - and intelligent - act by last year's Congress was the vote by the House to cut one of the largest single items in the federal budget: Construction funds for the Pentagon's F-22 fighter jet. The vote was overwhelming, 379 to 45.
After the House vote, a highly unusual scenario unfolded as President Clinton joined Senate Republicans in calling for the full restoration of F-22 funds. The White House threatened to veto the defense appropriations bill over this issue.
In the end, a House-Senate conference committee restored most of the funds for the F-22, with significant restrictions attached. But fiscally conservative House leaders, led by Jerry Lewis, R-Calif., continued to express their displeasure with the F-22 program.
Faced with unprecedented budget pressures, what will the House do this year?
The case for funding the F-22 has not improved since last year's vote. The jet was sold to Congress in 1990 as a replacement for the F-15 fighter because U.S. military experts believed the Soviet Union was designing new, superior fighter jets. But the Soviet planes never were built. The plans for them collapsed with the Soviet Union.
Thus, the existing 750 active F-15s remain, undeniably, the world's most advanced tactical fighters. And they will remain so, reports the General Accounting Office, through 2015 or later. With at least a 50-1 advantage in modern fighter aircraft over Iraq, Iran, China, and other potential adversaries, U.S. air superiority is not in jeopardy.
Yet, the Air Force wants to replace the F-15s (which cost $33 million each) with 339 F-22s at a cost of $63 billion, about $187 million per plane. It would be by far the most expensive fighter plane ever. And, astonishingly, the F-22 is only one of three new-generation fighter jets that the Pentagon wants to build in the coming decades, costing a total of $350 billion.
In addition to serious questions about the need for the F-22, there is evidence that it will not work as advertised - and anyone in their right mind would expect Congress to pay close attention to these problems in the wake of the recent tilt-rotor Osprey crash, which killed 19 Marines. The Osprey was needlessly rushed through Congress by pork-barreling politicians.
Fewer than five percent of planned F-22 flight tests have been completed. The GAO, the investigative arm of Congress - which also objected to the Opsrey - has reported that the F-22 faces design deficiencies, including faulty brakes, leaky fuel lines and problems connecting the plane's wings to its body. And questions remain about the F-22's ambitious design, such as its ability to cruise at supersonic speed with unmatched maneuverability.
Despite these problems, lobbying pressure on behalf of the F-22 has been intense, as it was for the Osprey. After the plane's near-death experience last year, Lockheed Martin - the prime manufacturer of the jet - went on afterburner into a lobbying frenzy.
Undoubtedly buoyed by the knowledge that parts for the F-22 are made in 46 states, Lockheed lobbyists visited key lawmakers in their home districts during the congressional recess immediately following the House vote.
Lockheed warned that hundreds of jobs would be lost if Congress did not allocate sufficient tax dollars to build the F-22. In four key cities, Lockheed set up a dazzling computer simulation of the plane's cockpit. The display - basically a video game - promised gee-whiz performance
This year, lobbying pressure will continue to be intense, but so will budget pressure. The Clinton administration has raised its request for the F-22 from the $2.2 billion allocated last year to an eye-popping $4 billion - enough to build more than 250 secondary schools across America.
Th F-22 request comes as congressional Republicans are grappling with how to justify their proposal to increase funding for the Pentagon and education, legislate a tax cut, and - with inflation added - to cut nearly everything else in the discretionary portion of the budget. And they must deal with this in an election year.
With the budget clamp squeezing hard, will House Republicans determine that the F-22 is indeed justified this year, when last year it was not?
Or will we see an encore to last year's act, in which brave House Republicans - joined this time by the Clinton administration and a Senate concerned about a repeat of the Osprey disaster - withstand the lobbying pressure and recognize that America has much more pressing budget priorities than the expensive and unnecessary F-22?
Vice Adm. Jack Shanahan (ret.), is the former commander of the Atlantic Fleet and heads the Military Advisory Committee of Business Leaders for Sensible Priorities.