How the defense industry dodges budget cuts

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The Center for Public Integrity launched its Gift Economy project to shine a light on how the flow of money from defense contractors to key lawmakers has tainted—and in some cases corrupted—decision-making on key national security and defense budgeting issues.

We’ve been examining Federal Election Commission campaign finance data and congressional lobbying data from the Senate Office of Public Records. We have focused on all contributions and lobbying by the top 100 defense contractors since 2003, and on current and former members of the six committees that must approve all military spending (Armed Services, Appropriations and Energy, in both the House and Senate). We have seen how these defense companies are intervening in critical congressional deliberations.

Our first analysis from these data produced an investigation into how one contractor, General Dynamics, lobbied Congress and doled out contributions to key members while they considered the fate of the M1 Abrams tank. The Pentagon says it has enough Abrams tanks – and has even mothballed some in the California desert. The Pentagon wants to halt the program to save $3 billion.

But armed with the data, we showed how General Dynamics’ lobbying and campaign contributions spiked at the moment of key hearings and votes (the company’s contributions went up from average of $7,000 a week to nearly $50,000 at strategic junctures). As a result, General Dynamics and the congressional delegation from Ohio, where the tanks are assembled, prevented a freeze on M1 refurbishment from 2014 to 2017, even at a time when public opinion is galvanized against wasteful federal spending.

Our story about General Dynamics’ actions was heavily used by other media organizations, such as the McClatchy newspaper chain, NBC News, The Huffington Post, and Mother Jones. CNN ran a news segment about the story that quoted one of the authors of the investigation, which in turn inspired a Daily Show segment for which we supplied key information.

As the trade publication DODBUZZ tweeted: “Ever wanted to see how the military-industrial-congressional complex works? Read this excellent story.” Another tweet by the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists read: “Excellent. The Gift Economy at CPI…Series on top defense contractors who finance election campaigns of lawmakers.”

In addition to our own website, this report percolated through multiple media channels, making clear that there is a strong audience for journalism about the problematic ways in which Washington decides to spend its money.

And last month, we published another story in our Gift Economy series, The Drone that Could Not Be Groundeddepicting how Northrop Grumman was able to defeat an Air Force effort to save $2.5 billion by halting production of the troubled Global Hawk drone. Top Air Force officials knew last year they needed to halt spending on some large and expensive programs. So they looked for a candidate that was underperforming, had busted its budget, and wasn’t vital to immediate combat needs, coming up with the Global Hawk drone program.

But as we explained, Northrop strategically invested a half-million dollars in a single crucial committee, which voted to keep the drone in production and extend its operation, and then prevailed as budget legislation moved through both houses of Congress. Again, we highlighted the link between spikes in the company’s donations and key votes or hearings, including a seven-day period last May in which Northrop gave members of a single committee $55,000.

The Atlantic led its website with our story, bringing in thousands of readers for the article in just the first few hours. The story then rolled out in major McClatchy and Digital First  newspapers spread across the nation from Miami to Los Angeles and San Jose. Its conclusions were described in Time Magazine’s Battleland Blog and in many other publications.

Both of these stories had huge resonance with citizens and critics of excessive defense spending. Many passionate reader comments were written to denounce the pay-to-play character of congressional policymaking, even at a time of shrinking federal budgets.

There are many more such Gift Economy stories in the works this year, thanks to our National Security team of reporters and editors, led by R. Jeffrey Smith, a Pulitzer Prize-winning former Washington Post reporter. In the future, we will publish an interactive online database to allow journalists and citizens to search and analyze defense contractor influence-buying related to individual weapons systems and major sectors of the industry.

Until next week,
Bill