Defense industry woos GOP freshmen in hopes of fighting spending cuts

Defense-industry officials and advocates are wooing the GOP’s class of freshman lawmakers as they look for allies in their showdown over spending cuts. 

They are pressing new Republican lawmakers to get on board with their priorities by emphasizing that Pentagon contracts boost the economy, create jobs and spur innovation.

But the early-stage campaign to win over new lawmakers could be complicated by the campaign pledges of GOP freshmen — many backed by the Tea Party — to pare federal spending and curtail the deficit. 

“There is no question many freshmen were elected with reducing the deficit as job one,” said Marion Blakey, president and CEO of the Aerospace Industries Association. “We are really engaging on this.”

Few of the new GOP members spent time during the campaign staking out clear stances on defense issues, leaving weapons manufacturers largely scratching their heads about how much support to expect from them.

“The defense industry doesn’t know what to make of the Tea Party,” said Loren Thompson of the Lexington Institute. “It is accustomed to dealing with politicians motivated mainly by the desire to get reelected. The notion of legislators driven solely by an ideological agenda is hard to assimilate, given how Washington typically operates.”

Jim Albaugh, president and CEO of Boeing’s commercial aircraft division, said industry officials are aiming to “educate” new lawmakers about what the defense sector “brings to the economy.” 

Albaugh noted that the defense-aerospace industry is the nation’s largest exporter and brings high-tech jobs to many areas of the country. New members of Congress “need to understand that,” said Albaugh, who once headed Boeing’s defense unit.

One industry official said reaching out to new members of Congress “happens every two years.”

But for the defense sector, 2011 is no ordinary year.

After a decade of expanding defense budgets and huge industry profits, lawmakers and analysts are predicting sizable cuts to the defense budget in the years ahead. 

The White House wants to shrink the annual defense budget — expected to be around $553 billion in 2012 — by $78 billion over the next five years. And even some key Republican lawmakers say Pentagon reductions cannot be ruled out as Washington mulls options for reining in the deficit.

As defense-industry officials plot a lobbying strategy to resist such cuts, they are looking to drum up support on Capitol Hill.

Enter the 2011 congressional freshman class, many backed by the Tea Party and elected on promises to get the nation’s fiscal sheet in order.

Sources told The Hill that defense officials are watching closely to see how much power Republican leaders grant their new members. 

“The defense industry only has one customer, and that customer is a political system. That means contractors must get along with whoever is in power, regardless of ideology,” Thompson said. “The big question the companies are asking themselves right now is whether the Tea Party really is in power, or will it be smothered by proponents of the status quo on both sides of the aisle?”

Nine of the new Republican members were awarded slots on the House Budget Committee, which defense experts predict will have more power than in recent years.

“The way things are unfolding, we’ll see the budget committees play a more prominent role than in the past,” said Cord Sterling, vice president for legislative affairs at AIA. 

Several industry officials stopped short of saying they are targeting Budget panel members, but all were cognizant of the new members’ places on the committee.

Another industry official said, “The appropriations committees were always more sought after, but given these new members, I’m not surprised they would prefer to be on the Budget Committee.”

Sterling said AIA is not targeting new lawmakers who have seats on any specific panel. “We’re trying to get around to all the new members,” he said.

Freshman lawmakers also are hearing a pitch about the importance of stable year-to-year funding for weapon programs. Some Pentagon and industry officials say unpredictable funding levels are one of the chief reasons major DoD programs have to be delayed and pared back.

Industry officials and advocates are urging new lawmakers to consider more than the immediate budgetary impact of program and funding cuts.

“Whatever decisions regarding the federal budget they will have to make, it’s about setting priorities,” Sterling said.

The message for the freshmen is “make long-term decisions, not short-term decisions that increase costs and cause delays,” he added.