Former Warner military assistant joins fight for aerospace priorities

Cord Sterling comes from a long line of Marines. He joined the Corps out of high school intending to make a career of it. 

An old football injury, however, forced him to leave after only one year, but it did not sideline him from a career focused on national security.

Sterling soon joined another tireless corps: the professional staff of the Senate Armed Services Committee. He eventually became the military legislative assistant to John Warner (R-Va.), chairman of the armed services panel.

He recently left Congress to head the Aerospace Industries Association’s (AIA) legislative affairs office, but he will still be spending a lot of time walking the halls of Congress, which he calls the “most exciting” place in the world.

Sterling became AIA’s top lobbyist in June just as Congress was debating the 2007 defense authorization and appropriations bills .

This year, his association, which represents scores of aerospace and defense contractors, is furiously lobbying on several issues of critical importance to the industry as Congress returns from the August recess.

Among them is easing a strict “Buy America” measure – called the Berry Amendment. Relaxing the rules would allow defense companies to use some foreign-produced specialty metals in certain situations.

The World War II-era Berry amendment mandates that all specialty metals used in U.S. military systems —such as titanium, nickel and certain alloys — be produced and smelted domestically.

The Pentagon and White House also support loosening the Berry amendment rules. But that legislation has led to a showdown with the U.S. specialty metals industry and its defenders in the House, who want to sharpen restrictions on the use of foreign-produced specialty metals.

Furthermore, at a time when the cost of new weapons systems is widely considered to be spiraling out of control, the association also is seeking common ground with legislators who are trying to reform the Pentagon’s acquisition process.

The talk of reform has produced intense debate. For one, the AIA opposes a proposal by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), the vice chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee that would require the Pentagon to award fixed-price contracts for the development of major weapons systems. To date, the Pentagon has been awarding various types of contracts that allow for more flexibility.

Although the legislation is meant to curb the soaring cost of weapons, the defense industry argues that it would hinder innovation and erase the industry’s profits.

The AIA and the industry also want to see an extension of research-and-development tax credits, which they argue help maintain an innovative and skilled work force by making internal research and development affordable. 

It’s not an easily attainable agenda, especially right now, at a time when defense contractors are under ongoing scrutiny following several high-profile scandals, and the Iraq war and the global war on terrorism are pinching defense budgets.

But those who know Sterling say AIA could not have made a better choice: he’s creative, intense and able to think quickly on his feet, colleagues say.

“Cord is a true craftsman who understood the authorization and appropriations process and was not afraid to be very innovative in his approach to problem solving,” said Arch Galloway, Sen. Jeff Sessions’ (R-Ala.) senior policy adviser. “He was looking for ways to save the taxpayer money and he worked hard and came up with solutions that most of us never thought of. It was delightful to watch it unfold.”

Sterling was often sought out to solve technically difficult policy problems.

“You only get to be that way when you throw yourself into these assignments and learn them from inside out,” Galloway added.

Sterling joined the Senate Armed Services Readiness Subcommittee in 1995 right after the GOP took back the Senate and the House and entered the “Contract with America.” Before that, he had spent three years working on national security issues for what is now known as the Government Accountability Office.

He remembers having only 10 days off for the first 18 months of his subcommittee assignment. His legislative portfolio was varied and challenging and kept him constantly learning. As part of the readiness panel staff, he dealt with military depot maintenance, training and the day-to-day question of whether troops had enough resources.

While on the subcommittee, Sterling left his mark on the creation of the Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR) — a sweeping review of defense strategy — which this year gained added significance for its much-expected analysis of the way the Pentagon fights the war on terrorism and its plans for how the military will deal with future conflicts.

When legislation establishing the QDR was drafted in 1996, the members wanted a system in place that allowed them to reach beyond the annual defense authorization process and rethink some of the steps that had already been taken, Sterling explained.

“There were those in the Pentagon at the time, who did not like the idea, [but] now it is pretty well embraced as a good process to pursue every four years.”

In 2002, Sterling left the Hill for a short stint at EMC Corp., a computer data storage company. But it was not long until he was enticed back to Congress to join Warner’s personal office as his military legislative assistant. 

“I got into a greater variety of issues,” Sterling said. “It also allowed me to become much more familiar with issues specific to the Commonwealth of Virginia.”

After all, Sterling noted, “everything that is defense relates to Virginia, given that all services have bases in Virginia.”

In addition, he pointed to research and development, acquisition and personnel issues affecting all services in the Commonwealth.

“He was a hell of an advocate for Virginia and he was focused on making sure that the people in Virginia were taken care of in every way imaginable,” said Charles Abell, chief of staff of the Senate Armed Services Committee and former principal deputy under secretary of defense for personnel and readiness.

Concern about the 2005 round of base closure and realignment (BRAC) was a common threat throughout the majority of his three-and-a-half years in Warner’s office given that Virginia has 30 bases representing all branches of the military and numerous other leased spaces around the Pentagon. 

Even though Virginia had the good fortune to be represented by the chairman of the armed services panel, Warner insisted that every case be made on its own merits.

“The Senator would not have it any other way,” Sterling said.

Once BRAC was over, Sterling felt it was the right time to move to the private sector and said he was fortunate to find a position that allowed him to focus on issues that are important to the military, industry and the U.S. economy.

“Being here really provides … essentially a seat right up front, observing, helping to educate everybody on what the impacts are of decisions that are made,” he said. “Ninety percent of the job is really responding to questions that staff or members on the Hill have, and it is much more of an educational-type position.”

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