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Magazine

How the Defense Lobby Became Irrelevant

This was once the special-interest group to outplay all special-interest groups. Then lawmakers stopped cowering before it. Is its leverage gone?

The daily grind, still: Pentagon staffers head to work.(The Washington Post/Gerald Martineau)

photo of Sara Sorcher
January 1, 2014

The defense lobby was once both behemoth and bogeyman. It was the muscle behind the military-industrial complex, the puppeteer liberals blamed for moving money from food stamps to fighter jets. Above all, it was the Beltway powerhouse that made Congress cower.

Nobody is afraid of defense lobbyists now. Congress has defied them twice in two years, first by failing to undo the first round of defense cuts under sequestration, and again this week by floating a budget deal that would only partly pare back the next round. The fact that industry accepts this deal, a far cry from the grand bargain it demanded last year, shows just how far expectations have plummeted.

What laid low the once-mighty lobby? Hyperbole, and some hubris. In the waning days of 2012, the industry promised Armageddon unless Congress spared it from the sequester's spending cuts. The Aerospace Industries Association doled out clocks that ticked off the days, hours, minutes, and seconds—a panic-inducing "countdown to disaster," when more than a million defense jobs would be gouged. But when the lobbying blitz failed and the sequester guillotine fell, the industry was forced into an embarrassing position: It had cried wolf. Long after AIA's ticking clocks ran down, employers had not sent the tens of thousands of layoff notices; major defense companies remained profitable; and the U.S. military—though far from unscathed—remained a global juggernaut.

 

Now, with another round of sequester cuts looming, the lobby is again sounding the alarm, but its past hyperbole has defanged its warning. "When they went full bore saying the sky is falling January 2, and then later on March 1, they were betting it would never actually come to pass—so no one would be able to say they were overhyping this or exaggerating the immediacy of the impact," says Todd Harrison, a defense-budget analyst at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. "They miscalculated. Now the defense industry is left with its credibility damaged."

The situation is all the more painful for defense lobbyists because this time around—perceptions aside—they would have had a much stronger case to make. If the proposed budget deal founders, the Pentagon could lose $52 billion from its 2014 request; if the deal passes, congressional appropriators must still find a way to cut $31 billion.

Last year, the Pentagon used a cushion of unobligated funds to pay down some losses, and it delayed weapons programs and testing to avoid cancellations. But this coming year, that cash has evaporated. More cuts mean the Pentagon can no longer mask the pain and must make tough decisions on weapons programs. Preserving pay and benefits for troops means further raiding funds for research and development.

Warning of disaster—while still lacking specific cuts to make a strong case—is a losing proposition. Even the lobbyists acknowledge the impotence of their message now. "All the screaming to high heavens" about how sequester would raise the unemployment rate came too soon, says one from a major company. "Whether it's the voting public or elected officials, I think there is legitimate reason for them to question the industry's estimations of significant job losses." Still, lobbyists can point to some visible signs of military distress: The Army says that only two of its 43 active-duty brigades are fully ready for combat. The Navy canceled the deployment of an aircraft carrier to the Persian Gulf. Hundreds of thousands of civilians were furloughed, and the services say more long-term cuts will force them to downsize people and equipment.

But the signals are confusing. Despite warnings that sequestration would harm operations, the U.S. deployed warships for high-profile relief efforts in the Philippines, and President Obama floated the possibility of military action in Syria. And although some layoffs have come—Lockheed Martin cut about 4,000 jobs last month—major defense firms appear to be doing just fine: Defense giants, including Lockheed and Raytheon, reported third-quarter profit increases. "There have definitely been people who have accused us of crying wolf," AIA spokesman Dan Stohr says. The group, he says, did not anticipate that the Pentagon could minimize the sequester's pain. "We were taking our best shot at trying to estimate the effects, with the information we had at the time." This year, AIA is no longer commissioning unemployment studies—"been there, done that," Stohr says—but is focusing instead on "messages that resonate." Perhaps in tacit acknowledgment that defense is not the center of the political universe right now, AIA this year partnered with domestic sectors, including education, to talk about the sequester's broader effects on the nation's workforce.

Complicating the picture is a schism in the Republican Party that had long held defense spending sacred. After the sequester, the gulf between defense hawks and deficit hawks widened. The defense industry has little influence with this latter group. One lobbyist described recent strategy sessions with major defense companies whose officials complained about failed (and acrimonious) meetings with young tea-party members, including Reps. Mick Mulvaney and Justin Amash. The lobbyist said they gave up on the meetings altogether, tired of "junior members of Congress who are lecturing us on how screwed up we are."

Congress is clearly not listening to the defense lobby the way it would have during the Cold War or other periods of high threat, says Loren Thompson, chief operating officer of the Lexington Institute, a think tank. "This is the first time in my memory that Republicans aren't lined up in a bloc behind robust weapons spending," he says. "During the Reagan years, people were equating buying weapons with being safe. It's like that connection has been broken."

The Republican Party's right wing has proven its willing to lose jobs at the district level and take national security risks to rein in big government. In the eyes of that faction, the Pentagon, despite lobbyists' best efforts, is part of the problem.

This article appears in the December 14, 2013 edition of National Journal Magazine as Dying Breed.

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