By Eric Boehm
Military contractors spent millions lobbying Congress last year, and it seems to have worked.
They stand to get billions in return.
The military-industrial complex has emerged as one of the big winners in the budget deal working its way through Congress, but headed for approval.
The omnibus spending bill basically eliminates $22 billion in proposed cuts to the Department of Defense — cuts that were once part of the much-feared “sequester” that took effect in March 2013 due to the lack of a federal budget bill — and hands the Pentagon nearly $500 million for 2014.
An analysis by The Hill says the defense budget was supposed to be around $475 billion before Congress decided to repeal the sequester cuts, bringing the final total to about $497 billion.
The Defense Department also is getting $85 billion — an increase of $5 billion from last year — for the ongoing was in Afghanistan, which is not included in the baseline budget because wars are funded in a separate and sterile-sounding part of the budget known as “overseas contingency operations.”
“Congress made a deal to cut spending in exchange for raising the debt ceiling,” said Veronique De Rugy, a senior fellow at the Mercatus Center, a libertarian think tank based at George Mason University in Virginia. “But some of the biggest and loudest voices calling for the restoration of the sequester was the defense contractors — as if the world would be in grave danger if their profit margins were cut.”
According to lobbying information released Monday, major defense contractors spent more than $65 million influencing Congress during 2013, with much of that effort likely aimed at rolling back the sequester cuts.
Boeing reported spending more than $15 million on lobbying in 2013 to lead the way, followed by Lockheed Martin ($14.4 million) and United Technologies Corp. ($13.6 million).
Those contractors stand to make out pretty well in the new budget.
Congress is preparing to approve all major weapons systems procurement processes, according to The Hill. That includes the controversial F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, the most expensive weapon system in history, which just happens to be produced by Lockheed Martin.
The estimated price tag for the F-35 fighter is more than $1 trillion over 50 years. Even U.S. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., known for his hawkish views and support of the military, has questioned that expense.
The F-35 is hardly alone.
There are more than $7 billion in earmarks for the defense industry contained in the omnibus spending bill, according to an analysis by the Taxpayers Protection Alliance, a Virginia-based group that monitors federal spending.
That total includes more than $1.1 billion to fully fund the construction of several new Virginia-class submarines, and $90 million to upgrade existing Abrams tanks.
The tanks are a special example of government waste in the new budget deal. Congress authorized the spending even though the Pentagon proposed halting production of the vehicles as a cost-saving measure.
Members of both political parties and both chambers are to blame for the wasteful defense earmarks, said David Williams, president of the Taxpayers Protection Alliance.
“The picture has become clearer with each ‘bipartisan’ agreement we get from Congress: the sequester is on its way out; increased spending and appropriations is on the way back in,” he said.
De Rugy agreed that Congress ultimately was responsible for keeping spending in check or letting it run wild.
Members of Congress are unwilling to vote for spending cuts that affect defense contractors, for fear of looking soft on defense or facing a potential political backlash from the loss of those jobs. Even on the occasions – like with the Abrams tanks – when the Pentagon isn’t asking for more money, or when oversight committees find wasteful spending in the defense budget, the Appropriations Committee has a strong incentive to keep funding level or even increase it.
While defense contractors can spend millions of dollars lobbying for their interests, they are really just protecting their turf, De Rugy said. Until Congress removes the incentive for them to do that, they will continue.
“The best way to improve oversight is to have less to oversee,” De Rugy said. “But part of the problem is that even conservatives who want to keep the budget in check don’t scrutinize the defense budget.”
The defense budget accounts for more than 40 percent of the overall $1.1 trillion spending bill.