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
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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.

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