The U.S. defense industry has been riding high for the past four years, propelled by the Pentagon’s growing spending on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the large cost of homeland security.
But defense contractors — which are receiving a handsome portion of the nearly $500 billion that Congress has appropriated for defense and homeland security in 2006 — do not make hefty political campaign donations.
Unlike other industries fighting for recognition from Congress, defense companies do not have to use political donations to compete for members’ attention, according to Larry Noble, executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan research group based in Washington.
“They do not have to convince the government to spend money on defense, really,” Noble said. “Defense is a pretty secure area of the budget. In that sense, there is a built-in power that they have.”
Instead, the defense industry touts its ability to create thousands of jobs in congressional districts across the country. It also pours millions of dollars into lobbying efforts aimed at persuading the Pentagon and Congress to fund certain technologies.
As a consequence, defense does not rank among the top 20 industry donors, but fluctuates between No. 31 and No. 48, according to data gathered by the Center for Responsive Politics for the past three election cycles.
In 2004, a presidential election year, the defense industry, on the whole, contributed $16.2 million to Congress and political committees.
The same year, law firms ranked No. 1 in political donations, forking over $85.7 million to lawmakers and political parties, according to the center.
Nevertheless, defense-industry contributions cannot be ignored, according to Noble. “It is still a lot of money,” he said, explaining that relatively few large defense companies are able to make significant contributions.
About 20 cents on every dollar Congress appropriates is devoted to defense spending. While a significant amount is directed to the armed forces for military operations, the defense industry receives numerous contracts to build, service and maintain the weapons systems employed in armed conflicts.
The defense industry mainly depends on U.S. government contracts, relying on exports for only a limited amount of its profits.
While the industry does not have to persuade lawmakers to make defense spending a major priority, individual defense companies are fiercely competitive in their efforts to lobby Congress and the Pentagon about which weapons systems to fund. Because of that, the top five U.S. defense companies devoted nearly three times the amount they donated in campaign contributions on lobbying efforts.
For example, in 2004 Northrop Grumman spent $12.5 million on lobbying alone, the most any defense company spent that year on trying to influence lawmakers to fund its projects.
In contrast, the company donated $1.6 million to federal candidates and parties during the same period.
Lockheed Martin, the largest U.S. defense contractor, spent $9 million on its lobbying power, the second highest amount, but the defense giant donated just $2.1 million to the political process in 2004.
Another defense powerhouse, Boeing, spent $8.5 million on lobbying last year (although that amount also includes its large commercial business) and gave $315,595 to candidates.
Meanwhile, General Dynamics spent $5.6 million on lobbying while Raytheon devoted $4.5 million. The companies made political donations of $1.4 million and $961,252, respectively.
Despite the large lobbying investments, the defense industry’s most persuasive element is its ability to create thousands of jobs.
“Lawmakers are not trying to win campaign cash,” said Keith Ashdown of Taxpayers for Common Sense. “They are trying to make sure that they employ thousands of people.”
Because they are able to create so many jobs, defense contractors also can scout out strategic locations. For example, Boeing, a Seattle-based company, moved its world headquarters to the Chicago district of Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) and now receives Hastert’s support and protection, Ashdown said. The Washington state delegation also strongly supports Boeing’s endeavors; Rep. Norm Dicks (D-Wash.), a senior member of the Appropriations Committee, is one of Boeing’s most vocal advocates on the Hill.
When EADS North America, Boeing’s competitor for the contract for midair refueling tankers, was deciding where it wanted to build those airplanes, it chose Alabama, the state of GOP Sens. Richard Shelby, a member of the Appropriations Committee, and Jeff SessionsJeff SessionsObama-era cash for cronies under House fire McConnell: 'Winners make policy, losers go home' DeVos should ‘persist’ despite liberal opposition MORE, chairman of the Armed Services Strategic Forces Subcommittee.
When it comes to campaign donations, the industry is known for its tendency to target its donations specifically to defense authorizers and appropriators, Noble said.
For the past three years, Rep. John Murtha (D-Pa.), the ranking member of the Defense Appropriations Subcommittee, has been the No. 1 beneficiary of defense campaign donations in the House and has not fallen below No. 3 for Congress as a whole.
In fact, for just the 2006 cycle, Murtha ranks No. 1 overall, with $188,350 in donations from the defense industry. House Armed Services Committee Chairman Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.) follows with $118,350.
In 2004, Murtha ranked behind only President Bush and his Democratic opponent, Sen. John KerryJohn KerryFormer Obama officials say Netanyahu turned down secret peace deal: AP How dealmaker Trump can resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict John Kerry to teach at Yale on global issues MORE, in overall defense-industry contributions, with $284,750.
During the 2002 election cycle, when Murtha was forced to campaign for his seat because of state redistricting that pitted him against a fellow congressman in the primary, he again scored No. 1 in all Congress, pulling in $309,299 in political donations from defense companies.
In 2000, Murtha slipped behind Hunter, who at that point was running for Armed Services chairman.
“Murtha walks on water. If you want anything done on the committee, you go to Murtha. Murtha is the reason why the [defense appropriations] bill gets done each year,” said Ashdown about the veteran Congressman known to be a dealmaker who frequently reaches across the aisle.
But Murtha also has raised some watchdogs’ concerns because his brother Robert “Kit” Murtha runs KSA Consulting, a lobbying group that represents some 10 smaller defense companies. In 2004, Murtha’s brother was able to secure $20 million in the defense-spending bill for his clients. Kit Murtha repeatedly has denied working directly with his brother’s office.
In comparison to Rep. Murtha, Rep. Bill Young (R-Fla.), who chairs the Defense Appropriations Subcommittee, receives far fewer political contributions from the defense industry, as does Appropriations Chairman Jerry Lewis (R-Calif.), who previously chaired the Defense Appropriations Subcommittee.
“The other reason you see Murtha get so much is because Young does not ask for very much,” Ashdown said.
In the 2006 cycle, Young does not rank among the top 20 beneficiaries of defense industry political donations, while Lewis has collected just $69,000 from defense companies.
Senators who received the most donations from the defense industry include Shelby, who is well-positioned to become the next Senate Appropriations chairman; Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), chairman of the Defense Appropriations Subcommittee; and Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.), a member of Armed Services and the ranking member of the Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee.