In chart after chart and one floor speech after another, U.S. Senator Jeff Sessions is a dogged critic of federal spending in Washington.
In March, the third-termer from Alabama called on federal employees to identify how much “waste” there is in the government. “Government has never been bigger or more out of control,” he warned days later. “These destructive policies cannot continue.”
His demand to rein in costs, though, doesn’t apply to all federal programs. Excluded is the Navy’s $34 billion Littoral Combat Ship, a program he champions and one vital to the economy of his hometown of Mobile. The shipbuilding contract with Austal Ltd. created thousands of skilled jobs there.
Sessions, the top Republican on the Budget Committee who is up for re-election next year, sees no contradiction between his budget-cutting zeal and his support for a program that has encountered criticism as its costs doubled.
“It’ll have to defend itself as time goes by, but this ship is going to perform at a high level,” Sessions said in an interview at the Capitol. “I just don’t think we’re close to seeing a major reduction in that program. It’s less expensive, it’s transformative and it puts us on the right path.”
Sessions isn’t unusual in Congress as he seeks to defend programs benefiting his state even while criticizing the federal budget, said Sam Fisher, a political science professor at the University of South Alabama in Mobile. Pentagon spending touches the states and districts of all 535 members of Congress.
“When it comes to the bottom line, members of Congress will do things that will help the economy of their states,” Fisher said in an interview.
The Government Accountability Office, Congress’s nonpartisan investigative arm, last week called on lawmakers to consider slowing funding for the Navy program. GAO contends the Pentagon is buying the vessels faster than it can test them.
The Navy will be under contract for at least 24 of the planned 52 ships before it completes tests in 2019, drawing more criticism.
“We need to fix it or find something else quickly,” Arizona Senator John McCain, a Republican and former Navy pilot, said of the ship last month.
Austal, an Australian-based contractor and the Mobile area’s largest manufacturer, has hired almost 4,000 people to work on one variant of the ship along the docks of the Mobile River. Austal also builds high-speed transport ships at the Mobile yard. Austal’s white-and-blue assembly buildings and cranes dot the riverfront view from the city’s quiet downtown, where the main street is lined with oak trees.
The Littoral Combat Ship contract has led Austal “to hire a lot of people in Mobile,” said Mayor Sam Jones, a Democrat, who recalled that the company had just several hundred employees a decade ago.
The ship contract “was the key for us at the time because we had a really high unemployment rate,” Jones said. “They had a real, real positive impact locally” on addressing that. Mobile’s unemployment rate rose from 5.8 percent in 2004 to 10 percent in 2010, the year Austal won the federal contract to build 10 ships. The jobless rate this April stood at about 7 percent, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
The ship program still draws support from the Pentagon and lawmakers amid federal budget cuts and questions about its design, firepower, defenses and ability to survive an attack.
With $500 billion in across-the-board Pentagon budget cuts pending over nine years, the Littoral Combat Ship is an example of a troubled project that has survived. The ship is intended to be a small, speedy, adaptable vessel for patrolling shallow waters close to shore, for example in the Persian Gulf.
It’s designed for such missions as destroying mines, hunting submarines, finding illegal drugs and providing humanitarian relief.
GAO analysts, some Navy officials and lawmakers have said the warship may need a redesign or at least more thorough testing. Austal is building a sharp-angled aluminum version of the ship that Navy officials have likened to a “Star Trek” spaceship.
Sessions, also a senior member on the Senate Armed Services Committee, defended the ship as “critically important” after the GAO analysis.
The program “has made great strides over the past year and will continue to be the most cost-effective solution for our warfighters to meet the modern-day maritime challenges,” he said in a statement to Bloomberg News.
He praised the Austal shipyard in Mobile earlier in an interview.
It “is the most modern in the world and it builds its ships modularly, which is cheaper,” said Sessions. “You can see how much space the ship has, and how in the future it could be altered to do a lot of good things.”
Austal trains its welders to work with aluminum -- a skill rare in U.S. shipbuilding, where most contractors use steel. A steel-hulled version of the vessel is being built in Marinette, Wisconsin, by a Lockheed Martin Corp.-led team.
The U.S. Navy has two years to convince critics including McCain and evaluators in its ranks that the program should continue beyond the 24 vessels already under contract. By 2015, the Navy must make its case for 28 more ships. The latest shipbuilding forecast projects buying all 52 vessels by 2029.
Set against these plans, construction costs have doubled to $440 million per ship from an initial goal of $220 million. A confidential 2012 Navy study criticized the ships as too lightly armed, labeled plans to swap equipment for different missions as impractical, and said the decision to build two versions complicates logistics and maintenance.
Last week’s GAO report concluded that Congress “should consider restricting future funding” until the Navy completes technical and design studies and determines the extent to which ships already under contract must be redesigned.
“We understand what is at stake and will get this right,” said Vice Admiral Richard Hunt, the head of the Navy’s LCS Council that evaluates all facets of the program and suggests improvements. “I have great confidence in the LCS program.”
Alabama’s senior Republican senator, Richard Shelby, said the ship program is the Navy’s “priority.”
“We’re all interested in reducing the deficit but I think on the other hand we should have priorities and I think national security should be the number one priority,” he said.
If the program is cut back or eliminated, workers at the Mobile shipyard say it would cause significant harm.
“A lot of us would lose our jobs,” said Justin Creighton, 25, a maintenance electrician at the Austal yard.
Jeremy Ewing, 34, also works at the shipyard. “Definitely, it would be a big hit to this area,” Ewing said last week as he walked to his car after his shift, still wearing his hard hat.
For Sessions, discontinuing the program is “unthinkable,” he said in the recent interview at the Capitol. “This is a core function, core priority of the Navy.”
Fisher, the political science professor, said that for Sessions there’s no “dissonance” between calling for spending cuts in the federal budget and backing a strong national defense as a “very conservative” Republican.
“It’s easy for him to say that he’s consistent because he’s advocating for a strong defense,” Fisher said.