By Austin Wright
The Pentagon’s most expensive weapons program has a sprawling lobbying presence in Washington to match.
It’s no surprise that Lockheed Martin, the maker of the fifth-generation stealth jet, has committed plenty of its resources to bolstering the program. But advocates of the F-35 on Capitol Hill extend far beyond Lockheed and include its suppliers, a labor union and groups that support military bases.
At least 15 entities reported lobbying last quarter on issues involving the F-35 fighter jet, one of the Pentagon’s most controversial and closely watched programs — expected to cost about $1 trillion over the course of its 55-year life.
Advocates for the fighter jet have sought to boost the program’s funding and stave off an effort by rival Boeing to get the Navy to continue buying its EA-18G Growlers.
Lockheed boasts an in-house team of more than a dozen lobbyists — led by former Army Undersecretary Greg Dahlberg — who advocate for the company’s many programs, from the F-35 to the Navy’s Littoral Combat Ship. In addition, Lockheed retains a number of outside lobby shops that press for additional F-35 funding, including Ervin Hill Strategy, Public Strategies Washington and Van Scoyoc Associates.
“We speak to members interested in national security on a regular basis regarding a variety of our products and capabilities,” said Lockheed spokesman Gordon Johndroe.
Other companies with a stake in the F-35 program — including BAE Systems, United Technologies, Rockwell Collins and Northrop Grumman — also lobby on behalf of the fighter jet.
One congressional aide, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said Lockheed and other major defense firms go to great lengths to woo lawmakers. “They roll out the red carpet for you,” the aide said.
The fighter jet’s supporters extend beyond defense contractors. For instance, the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers, a labor union representing hundreds of thousands of workers, has pushed for more F-35 funding next fiscal year.
“During this time of sluggish economic growth, the beneficial economic effects of the F-35 program cannot be overstated,” the group’s international president, Tom Buffenbarger, said in an April letter to the leaders of the House defense panels.
The F-35’s economic impact has made it an issue of major interest on Capitol Hill — the subject of open hearings, closed-door meetings and floor speeches. It even has its own House caucus, which began in 2011 with 48 members and includes a wide range of lawmakers, from liberal Democrats like Robert Brady of Pennsylvania to conservative Republicans like Paul Broun of Georgia.
The program’s broad support in Congress is due in large part to Lockheed’s supplier network, which stretches across the country and supports jobs in 45 states.
The program is also expected to be an economic boon for the military bases that end up getting F-35s, and advocacy groups for several bases have hired Washington lobbyists to help make their case.
One group, Imperial Valley United, has retained the firm Capstone National Partners to press its case last quarter for Navy F-35Cs to be based at Naval Air Facility El Centro in California.
“Imperial Valley, California, has got one of the highest unemployment rates in the country,” said Capstone lobbyist Steve Moffitt, a former deputy assistant secretary of defense for Senate affairs who worked on the 1991 Base Closure and Realignment Commission.
Moffitt said he met with Armed Services and Appropriations aides on Capitol Hill to make El Centro’s case, arguing that it has the best flying weather in the continental United States.
“This would be a huge boost for the economy,” he said in an interview. “You’d put thousands of people out there on a full-time basis.”
(On Thursday, following POLITICO’s interview with Moffitt, the Navy announced it plans to station about 100 F-35Cs at a different California base: Naval Air Station Lemoore).
Despite its broad backing, the F-35 has also spurred opposition lobbying. The Project On Government Oversight, a watchdog organization, has met with congressional aides, sent letters and published blogs to raise awareness of the program’s problems, from massive cost increases to schedule delays.
Ethan Rosenkranz, a national security policy analyst at POGO, said the group is up against a “well-funded opposition.”
“I’ve gone into congressional offices when Lockheed representatives are coming out, and vice versa,” he said.
This year, POGO has lobbied against a House provision that would fund four extra F-35s next fiscal year, above the 34 the Pentagon requested. “We’re living in a world of constrained budgets, and tough choices have to be made,” Rosenkranz said.