Rep. John Murtha (D-PA)
Jonathan Ernst  /  Getty Images file
Rep. John Murtha (D-PA), Chairman of the House Defense Appropriations subcommittee, is on a tour of defense plants and military bases.
By Tom Curry National affairs writer
msnbc.com
updated 4/10/2007 8:42:17 AM ET 2007-04-10T12:42:17

Rep. John Murtha, D-Pa., wants more submarines built more quickly. And that will mean adding more money to the $530 billion defense budget.

On Monday, Murtha, the chairman of the House Defense Appropriations subcommittee, got that message across here in Groton, Conn., after touring the Electric Boat facility. This is where Virginia-class attack submarines are built. It is also the district of freshman Democrat Rep. Joe Courtney.

Murtha and Courtney are calling for building two submarines a year, rather than the Navy’s current one-a-year pace.

Each Virginia-class sub is about the length of a football field and costs nearly $3 billion to build.

They are able to fire cruise missiles at land targets, conduct surveillance off foreign shores, and drop off commando teams to do stealth jobs behind enemy lines.

Half the work on the subs is done in Groton at the Electric Boat plant; the other half at Northrop Grumman in Newport News.

Electric Boat now has about 10,000 workers on its payroll, most of them in Groton, some at its facility at Quonset Point, R.I.

‘Wonderful news’ for Groton workers
For these workers, Murtha’s support for accelerated sub-building means job security.

“These are relatively good-paying jobs – on average about $21 an hour,” said Ken DelaCruz, president of the Metal Trades Council, the umbrella group for nine unions including the electricians, machinists, and others who work at Electric Boat. “I am just excited that he is talking about two submarines a year; it’s wonderful news for us,” DelaCruz said after conferring with Murtha on Monday.

Last year 600 workers were laid off at the plant; Murtha’s stepped-up pace would mean that most of those workers would probably be recalled.

In blunt Murtha style, he started his press briefing Monday with an awkward recollection: “When I came up to Electric Boat some 25 years ago, I found 5,000 bad welds in the Ohio (a ballistic missile sub).” But he said work quality has improved: “99.8 percent of the welds are good welds today.”

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Murtha was on a tour of defense plants and military bases from Bath Iron Works in Maine (where destroyers are built), and Quonset Point and Groton on Monday to Fort Hood, Texas on Tuesday.

Powerbroker on military spending
Americans know Murtha as the man who has been calling loudly for U.S. forces’ exit from Iraq. But long before any U.S. soldier set foot in Iraq, Murtha wielded power as the Democrats’ premier military appropriator – the man who decides how many billions of dollars should be spent on destroyers, cruisers, subs and bombers.

Murtha, who holds a safe seat, has garnered campaign contributions from defense contractors, including $10,000 in the 2006 campaign from General Dynamics, the parent company of Electric Boat. Murtha shared his largesse with Democratic House candidates including Courtney to whose campaign he donated $4,000.

To keep their House majority, Democrats need to defend freshmen such as Courtney who won last November by only 91 votes out of 250,000, ousting Republican incumbent Rob Simmons.

One reason Courtney and not Simmons is now representing Connecticut’s 2nd congressional district is that voters here had given up on a Republican national security strategy that required a prolonged stay in a hostile Arab country.

Courtney said of Simmons, “I don’t think anyone questioned the sincerity of his support for increased sub building, but they saw him wedded to priorities that were undermining” the non-Iraq parts of the Pentagon budget. Last year, Simmons called for building two subs a year.

But did giving up on Iraq mean that voters wanted Congress to pare down the Pentagon budget and shift money from military hardware to the poor, the sick, and the uneducated? Not necessarily, especially not here in Groton, where subs mean jobs.

Democrats proving a point
Robert Work, a military analyst with the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, a Washington think tank, said, “This is a very interesting time: between now and the presidential election the Democrats are going to want to show that they provide jobs, that they are strong on defense.”

The Navy agrees that two subs a year are needed “and they only ask for one” because of the uncertainty in the Pentagon budget, said Murtha. “Of course, the Navy is worried where I’ll take the money from (to speed up the pace of sub building) – but we’ll work that out.”

Total shipbuilding outlays will increase. “Absolutely,” Murtha vowed.

With Pentagon outlays running at about $530 billion a year, you might not think it would be hard to add an extra $3 billion a year for another submarine. That’s only about one-half of one percent of the Defense Department’s total annual spending.

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But Work said the Navy is worried that Murtha’s push for accelerated shipbuilding “will upset their long-term plans.”

A 33-year House veteran, Murtha was Nancy Pelosi’s campaign manager in her leadership battle with Steny Hoyer in 2001; she’s speaker today due more to Murtha than to anyone else.

But, said Work, “No matter how powerful you are, there’s no way to have a guarantee that you’re going to be able to sustain extra (shipbuilding) money over time. The Navy’s plan is based on what they believe is sustainable over a 30-year period.”

Navy chief warns of budget ‘train wreck’
The Navy’s top officer, Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Michael Mullen, acknowledged last week that his budget will soon collide with the mammoth cost of Medicare and Social Security benefits for the retiring Baby Boom generations.

“There is a huge fiscal train wreck out there for us as a country… defense is a piece of it, but it’s only right now 3.8 percent of GDP,” Mullen said in a speech at the Brookings Institution.

But Mullen said the Navy simply must have more ships. “We’re 276 today. That’s too small,” he said.

Military spending now accounts for 20 percent of the budget, far lower than the post-World War II peak in 1954. That’s when military outlays were nearly 70 percent of all federal expenditures.

So how is Congress going to pay for the entitlement programs, the submarines, the destroyers, the Iraq deployment, and all the rest?

How about an increase in taxes to pay for increased military outlays? After his tour of the plant, Murtha sidestepped the question, noting only that “I voted against every tax cut.”

In a recent interview in his Capitol office, Courtney’s answer to the tax question was: “It’s premature to get it into that right now.”

So the United States will be borrowing some of the money to build the subs by selling Treasury bonds to, among other buyers, the Chinese, the very threat against which the subs are being built.

Murtha weighs Chinese threat
Of the seriousness of the potential Chinese menace, Murtha has no doubt.

“I see projections that by the year 2013 they’ll be buying as much oil as we do,” he said. “If that’s accurate, the world supply of oil will not satisfy the United States and China. What is going to be the reaction of China if we are weak militarily?”

He then noted, “the reason Japan attacked the United States in World War II is that we cut off their oil supply. I’m just trying to prepare so that nobody miscalculates that we won’t be able to respond.”

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