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Defense Lobby Is Facing a Moment of Truth

Administration officials also didn’t spell out the full effect of the cuts until relatively late in the game; some argue too late. Making matters even worse was contractors’ historic tendency to protect their own turf at the expense of the industry as a whole.

“The defense industry has all of the unity and coherence of Balkan politics,” Thompson said. “These companies spend every hour of every day competing with each other. So getting them to do and say the same thing in the face of the sequestration threat is difficult.”

When Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and several colleagues last year asked 13 top defense contractors how the sequester would affect them, for example, they got differing responses. Lockheed Martin Chairman and CEO Robert Stevens wrote to say “significant job losses” and layoff notices were on the way. By contrast, United Technologies Corp. CEO Louis Chênevert told McCain in August, “we would probably not need to issue” such notices for several months.

Nor does the industry have a team of heavy-hitting associations backing it up. With the associations representing the Army, Navy and Air Force focused less on advocacy than on public events, lobbying has fallen almost entirely to the Aerospace Industries Association.

AIA officials have “punched above their weight,” said American Enterprise Institute Research Fellow Mackenzie Eaglen. The AIA has substantially increased its lobbying and campaign spending since Marion Blakey, former administrator of the Federal Aviation Administration, took over in 2007. The AIA’s “Second to None” campaign included economic studies to drive home the message that the sequester would kill 2.14 million American jobs. The AIA is pushing for a full reversal of the cuts.

“As people learn more directly and in their districts what the damaging impacts are, I think you will start to see people change their minds,” said Cord Sterling, AIA vice president of legislative affairs.

Still, the AIA’s budget, which according to tax records was $13.7 million in 2010, can’t compare with major trade groups such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which spent $145.7 million that year. And long-term industry consolidation, which defense experts now consider inevitable, will translate into fewer lobbying and campaign dollars to go around.

“We are laying people off,” Herson said. “And the less employees we have, the less people we have to draw on for the PACs.”

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