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Editorial: Congress may be forced to debate programs' merit

With Congress showing no signs of veering away from the next fiscal cliff, people are starting to sort out what will happen if the automatic budget cuts, known as sequestration, are triggered on March 1.

Among the items on the federal hit list is a Pentagon program that spends $37 million a year on recruitment and “goodwill” for one branch of the military.

Sounds like a classic pork-barrel project ripe for slashing, right?

Well, not so fast. One community’s pork may be another town’s gravy.

The line-item in question pays for the Navy’s Blue Angels, who, for more than six decades, have been dazzling audiences around the world with their fighter-plane acrobatics.

The Navy isn’t alone. The Air Force has its Thunderbirds, and the Army has its Golden Knights.

The Pentagon uses these highly trained military men and women to promote the various branches of the service, sending them to airshows and other public gatherings across the country where, for a nominal performance fee, they draw thousands of people.

But the Blue Angels are the biggest draw of them all and one of their scheduled stops this year is the Oregon International Air Show, where organizers are so pumped by the return of the squadron’s F/A-18 fighter jets (they were here in 2007) that they mention them in the voicemail message.

Air Show President Judy Willey says she’s optimistic that even if the automatic cuts are triggered on March 1, Congress will be able to restore some of the programs well before Hillsboro hosts the show in late July. And, even if the Angels are grounded, the show — a signature event for the region — will go on.

But the larger question remains: Should the Blue Angels (and Thunderbirds and Golden Knights) be spared the budget axe?

On one hand, Navy officials say their stunt pilots are a key recruiting tool, but can’t offer any specific numbers about how many men and women sign up after seeing the blue and gold jets perform breath-taking maneuvers overhead.

On the other hand, we know the squadrons do have some recruitment value. What’s less often discussed is that many of the six dozen shows that book the Blue Angels each year are community events, which have tangible and intangible value.

The Oregon Air Show (which is set to pay $12,000 for the Blue Angels this year) raises money for charity. After last year’s show, which featured the Thunderbirds, more than 50 nonprofit groups, including Tigard High School, Horizon Christian School, Quiet Waters Outreach, Community Action of Washington County and the Good Neighbor Center, shared in $78,000 of Air Show grants.

So, is the public well-served by its $35 million-a-year investment in the Blue Angels (or Thunderbirds, which have a similar price tag)?

We’ll leave that up to members of Congress, who — thanks to sequestration — are looking at more than half a trillion dollars in Pentagon budget cuts over the next 10 years, matched by the same cuts to domestic programs.

After years of putting off tough decisions about spending on popular programs, Congress now may be forced to actually debate their merits.

We’d love to see the Blue Angels streak across the Washington County sky this summer. We also, however, now have a better sense that they don’t come cheap.

Faced with $1 trillion in cuts, the Blue Angels’ $35 million won’t make or break the national budget. But they do serve as an important reminder that something which looks like wasteful spending from one vantage point may be viewed as a smart community investment somewhere else.

So, yes, these are tough decisions. And it’s about time Congress made them.



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