Editorial for Wednesday — September 10, 2003

• Buy now, cry later

Buy now, cry later

Let’s change the motto on the penny. E Pluribus Unum is just soooo old fashioned. For a motto that reflects Washington’s attitude toward money today, we suggest, “Buy now, pay later.”

Congress and the White House should love our suggestion. After all, they’re borrowing an astronomical $455 billion to keep the government running this year, pretending blissfully that the bill will never come due.

The urge to splurge is catching. It has jumped the Potomac and now even the Pentagon wants to whip out a credit card. In effect, the Air Force wants to buy 100 new Boeing refueling tankers on the installment plan.

The extra cost to taxpayers: $5.7 billion above the proper cost of the planes, according to the Congressional Budget Office.

Anywhere but Washington, $5.7 billion is a lot of money. To put it in perspective, it’s as if the government took the entire paychecks of everybody in Jefferson and Lincoln counties for an entire year and burned them up.

The Pentagon needs new tankers. The KC-135s used today are from the era of Elvis. The fleet’s average age is 42 and the oldest planes date to 1957. Boeing’s replacement, a modified 767 to be built near Seattle, would be a vast improvement.

However, the flying fossils could keep sputtering aloft for a few more years as the Pentagon eases into a gradual replacement program.

But why wait, when you can buy today? “Sign right here on our little lease agreement with our painless payment plan,” says Boeing, “and we’ll have you tooling out the showroom and a brand new fleet of tankers right away.”

The Air Force wants to lease the planes, instead of buying them outright as it normally does. Done with a lease, the whopping $24.7 billion price tag won’t show up quickly on the Pentagon’s annual budgets, where it might gag Congress. In other words, Congress won’t face the nasty choice between funding the tankers, cutting other programs next year, or launching the national debt even higher into the stratosphere.

Instead, the biggest bills won’t show up until a few years hence. Buy now, cry later.

As anyone who leases a car knows, leasing is not much different from borrowing. You pay a lot in the equivalent of interest. In this case, the Air Force would pay $5.7 billion more than if it simply bought the planes outright, according to Congress’ number-crunching outfit.

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., blasts the deal as a bailout to help Boeing weather a slump in commercial aircraft sales. No doubt Boeing needs the work. It has been lobbying fiercely, especially at the White House, where it got support from Chief of Staff Andrew Card. Some say it even got an improper tip about tanker bids from its arch rival, Airbus.

But calling this a bailout is too harsh. The Pentagon does need new tankers, and Boeing makes fine planes. Uncle Sam should buy tankers the old-fashioned way, as it can afford them, instead of trying to play Congress and the taxpayers for suckers.

St. Louis Post-Dispatch


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