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?

SLUG: ph-shooting DATE: March 05, 2010 NEG NUMBER: 212525 LOCATION: Pentagon City Metro Stop PHOTOGRAPHER: GERALD MARTINEAU, for TWP CAPTION: We photograph people who decided to walk to the Pentagon, including many in uniform, rather than take a shuttle bus. Photo shows them crossing Army-Navy Drive.
Washington Post/Getty Images
Sara Sorcher
Add to Briefcase
See more stories about...
Sara Sorcher
Jan. 1, 2014, 2 a.m.

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.

What We're Following See More »
John Warner to Endorse Clinton
8 hours ago

"Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton will score another high-powered Republican endorsement on Wednesday, according to a campaign aide: retired senator John Warner of Virginia, a popular GOP maverick with renowned military credentials."

Appeals Court Hears Clean Power Plant Case
8 hours ago

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit on Tuesday "heard several hours of oral arguments" over the Environmental Protection Agency's Clean Power Plan rules. The 10-judge panel "focused much of their questioning on whether the EPA had overstepped its legal authority by seeking to broadly compel this shift away from coal, a move the EPA calls the Best System of Emission Reduction, or BSER. The states and companies suing the EPA argue the agency doesn’t have the authority to regulate anything outside of a power plant itself."

Here Come the Ad Buys
8 hours ago

"Spending by super PACs tied to Donald Trump friends such as Ben Carson and banker Andy Beal will help make this week the general election's most expensive yet. Republicans and Democrats will spend almost $28 million on radio and television this week, according to advertising records, as Trump substantially increases his advertising buy for the final stretch. He's spending $6.4 million in nine states, part of what aides have said will be a $100 million television campaign through Election Day."

Reid Blocks Tech Bill Over “Broken Promise”
13 hours ago

Monday night's debate may have inspired some in Congress, as Senate Minority Leader has decided to take a stand of his own. Reid is declining to allow a vote on a "bipartisan bill that would bolster U.S. spectrum availability and the deployment of wireless broadband." Why? Because of a "broken promise" made a year ago by Republicans, who have refused to vote on confirmation for a Democratic commissioner on the Federal Communications Commission to a second term. Harry Reid then took it a step further, invoking another confirmation vote still outstanding, that of Supreme Court nominee Merrick Garland.

Spending Bill Fails to Clear 60-Vote Hurdle
15 hours ago