Kicking the tires and taking a few test drives might be fine for choosing the family minivan. But the vetting process gets more complicated — and a lot more expensive — when the U.S. military is in the market for a new ride.
Three companies, including Oshkosh-based Oshkosh Corp., are getting between $56 million and $66 million to build prototype "joint light tactical vehicles" — basically, the next-generation Humvee — as part of the competition for a $14 billion contract to provide 55,000 of the vehicles to the U.S. Army and Marines.
That would be one big chunk of military-industrial-complex-style economic development, and hard to dis for any politician seeking to represent Oshkosh — even for politicians who have supported the military-trimming debt-reduction plan known as Bowles-Simpson or object to this country's massive military spending.
Republican U.S. Rep. Tom Petri, who represents the Oshkosh-area 6th District, backed Bowles-Simpson, and on Monday, his spokesman walked a fine line between supporting contracts for the home district and fiscal restraint.
Petri "absolutely supports contracts to businesses in the 6th District," said Niel Wright. Spending cuts "should be handled fairly," he said, but if in the end that means less taxpayer money for the district, "then so be it."
Democratic U.S. Rep. Tammy Baldwin, who is running for U.S. Senate, notes on her House website that America's military budget is "nearly as large as the defense budgets of every other country in the world combined" and many items "consume massive budgetary resources but provide little return in terms of security."
Campaign spokesman John Kraus said Baldwin believes it's time to end the war in Afghanistan and "redirect the roughly $2 billion we spend there each week to balance our budget and strengthen our economy here at home."
Which apparently means there's still room for $14 billion for Oshkosh.
Baldwin "has worked hard to make sure that the federal government contracts work with American companies, like in this case with a great Wisconsin business, Oshkosh Corporation," Kraus said.
More definitive was Baldwin's Republican opponent, former Gov. Tommy Thompson.
Thompson "applauds Oshkosh Corp.'s success," said spokesman Brian Nemoir. "While we have pressing national fiscal challenges, such challenges should not be financed at a cost to the safety of those men and women who serve our country."
I found Joe Kallas, the underdog Democrat running against Petri, the most conflicted about home-district military spending.
For a guy who thinks "we spend way too much on the military," military spending that pays the salaries of your constituents is the "ultimate Catch-22," he said.
Eventually he told me if the money's going to be spent anyway, it might as well be spent in Oshkosh.
That kind of willingness to struggle openly with tough problems that have no perfect solutions was refreshing.
Too bad it doesn't make a politician very electable.