The once-mighty defense lobby’s failure to head off some $500 billion in Pentagon cuts marks a moment of truth for an industry that has lost clout and allies on Capitol Hill, probably for good.
“They’ve been to the mountaintop, and they know they’re not there anymore,” said Loren Thompson, chief operating officer of the conservative think tank the Lexington Institute. “I think the companies are trying to figure some way out of this dilemma, but they’re feeling trapped.”
As some 800,000 civilian Defense Department employees brace for furloughs, industry players say there’s plenty of blame to go around. Factors include defense contractors’ tendency to fight among themselves for federal dollars instead of rallying behind a unified message, as well as the 2010 ban on congressional earmarks — the line items for pet projects, often defense-related, that once gave defense lobbyists leverage during budget negotiations.
The sequester, which President Barack Obama said in October “will not happen,” comes on the heels of a record $27 million in defense industry campaign giving in 2012, Center for Responsive Politics data show, mostly to Republicans.
Yet the GOP’s fiscal conservatives are now edging out the party’s defense champions. The upshot may be fewer political action committee contributions the next time around, said one defense lobbyist who asked not to be named.
“There’s a sense among [the] industry that the system is completely broken, completely dysfunctional,” the lobbyist said. “And a lot of them are asking: Why should they be giving political contributions anymore?”
Not that the industry’s titans, which include Boeing Co., Honeywell Inc., Lockheed Martin Corp. and Raytheon Co., have suddenly lost all leverage on Capitol Hill. Defense lobbyists back a budget deal spearheaded by House Appropriations Chairman Harold Rogers, R-Ky., that would at least give the Pentagon more stability and spending flexibility this year.
Slated for a vote this week, the plan would combine a continuing resolution to keep the government running past March 27 with fiscal 2013 Defense and Military Construction-VA spending bills. Without a 2013 bill, the Defense Department would be locked in at fiscal 2012 spending levels, exacerbating the automatic spending cuts of the sequester.
Defense lobbyists are not to blame for the across-the-board cuts that Pentagon officials warn will hollow out the military and hurt national security, according to many industry experts. The troop drawdowns in Iraq and Afghanistan, sharp partisan differences over how to balance the budget and the arrival of a new generation of budget hawks on Capitol Hill all played a role.
“I don’t think that the sequestration debate has much to do with defense, even though defense is likely to be its biggest victim,” Thompson said.
Still, political miscalculations and messaging missteps appeared to have dogged contractors throughout the sequester fight. House Armed Services Chairman Howard “Buck” McKeon, R-Calif., was one of several industry champions who reluctantly voted for the 2011 Budget Control Act amid leadership promises that the threatened cuts would never come to pass.
Lawmakers failed to fully grasp that the 2011 act had already cut defense funding by $487 billion, making the sequester a double whammy, said Michael Herson, president of American Defense International. “There have been a lot of problems with messaging,” he said.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., carries a musket on stage as he speaks during the American Conservative Union's Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) at National Harbor, Md., on Thursday March 6, 2014.