WASHINGTON - Resurrected from the military boneyard, dozens of refurbished Marine helicopters are helping fight in Iraq and Afghanistan. The aging CH-53Ds are up to the task, but they lack a high-tech display system available to pilots in newer choppers.
A company with operations in Fort Worth wants $22.5 million to upgrade the fleet, and U.S. Rep. Kay Granger, R-Fort Worth, agreed to put the project on a wish list of potential earmarks in the federal budget.
The company, Elbit Systems of America, is grateful.
"I know earmarks get a very, very bad name. There are truly good earmarks that go towards the war-fighting effort," Elbit lobbyist George Simpson said. "It's not a bridge to nowhere or studying swine odor. This goes to saving lives."
This year alone, North Texas lawmakers have sought nearly $140 million in earmarks that would benefit defense contractors. Like all earmarks - from highway upgrades to research grants to water projects - these are getting more scrutiny than usual, thanks to new disclosure rules that make it easier for the public to learn about the requests and which lawmakers submitted them.
A closer look at the chopper upgrade and other requests, though, suggests the rules may not work as well as Congress and critics hope. Some equipment comes from only one company. Some earmarks can be written so narrowly that only one company has much hope of winning the contract.
Still, lawmakers defend the process.
"I make each request based solely on the merit of the request," said Granger, the top Republican on the appropriations subcommittee that controls funds used for diplomatic and some defense-related operations. "I see firsthand how these projects benefit my community better than any administration bureaucrat can."
Sending federal dollars back home is a time-honored tradition. Military projects are a key part of the North Texas economy, and for the 2010 budget, about 10 percent of special funding requests from area lawmakers involve military contracts.
Granger leads the local delegation in defense-related earmarks - more than $74 million, including two requests for Elbit.
Starting this spring, as part of new congressional ethics rules, lawmakers have been required to post such requests online.
Another new rule requires House subcommittees to give federal agencies 20 days to review requests before a final decision.
Like most would-be federal contractors, Elbit will have to go through a competitive bidding process.
But critics say that rule will make little difference, because earmarks can be written to ensure that only one company can win a contract.
"There isn't much competition if there is only one provider," said Steve Ellis with Taxpayers for Common Sense, a watchdog group that opposes earmarks.
And a company that already has been supplying a particular type of equipment or service "would have more than a leg up. They would be the odds-on winner," he said.
In the case of Elbit, the company has been selling the special helicopter pilot displays, called ANVIS-HUD, for more than 15 years, for nearly all Marine and Army helicopters.
For that and other services, the company did $75 million in government business in 2007, according to FedSpending.org.
If Granger hadn't acted, it's not clear whether the Pentagon would have upgraded the choppers.
"With all the things going on with the war, there's only so much money," said Simpson, the Elbit lobbyist, who flew attack helicopters in the Marines.
If Granger's request survives the legislative process, the Marines would be able to buy Elbit's heads-up displays through a contract the Army already has with the company, almost like ordering from a catalog. Simpson said that existing contract was previously competed.
Elbit employs 750 people in Fort Worth.
Other companies would benefit from other lawmakers' earmarks.
Two projects from L-3 Communications Integrations Systems show up on the wish list of U.S. Rep. Chet Edwards, D-Waco, totaling $12.2 million for defense aircraft systems used in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The company, with operations in Waco, has worked on the two aircraft - the C-130 Compass Call, which jams enemy communications, and the EP-3E, used for enemy surveillance, - for at least seven years, according to company spokesman Lance Martin.
"Our nation is at war, and I supported these projects because they support our troops in harm's way," Edwards said.
Edwards said military commanders often ask lawmakers to support projects that didn't make the cut when the Defense Department or White House budget office writes their budget requests.
Edwards, who has requested earmarks totaling $476 million, chairs the powerful appropriations subcommittee that funds veterans' affairs and military construction. He called the new competitive bidding rule a positive step.
The rule could work differently for another project Elbit requested through Granger: $2.5 million for a prototype of an unmanned surveillance vessel, dubbed the Nautilus, for the Navy.
Other companies could put together proposals and compete for the project, Simpson said.
"I don't know if we would have a leg up or not," he said.
Watchdog groups say that to effectively curb abuse in the system, an independent third party - like Congress' investigative arm at the Government Accountability Office - should review all requests.
Winslow Wheeler, an analyst with the Center for Defense Information in Washington, cited a storied gimmick from the 1980s, when the Defense Department reportedly had 14 pages of requirements for Worcestershire sauce, which happened to add up to the Lea & Perrins brand.
"There are all kinds of ways that agencies and Congress game competitive bidding," he said. "We need a truly independent take."