The M1 Abrams tank has survived the Cold War, two conflicts in Iraq and a decade of war in Afghanistan. No wonder — it weighs as much as nine elephants and is fitted with a cannon capable of turning a building to rubble from two and a half miles away.
But now the machine finds itself a target in an unusual battle between the Defense Department and lawmakers who are the beneficiaries of large donations by its manufacturer.
The Pentagon, facing smaller budgets and looking towards a new global strategy, has decided it wants to save as much as $3 billion by freezing refurbishment of the M1 from 2014 to 2017, so it can redesign the hulking, clanking vehicle from top to bottom.
Its proposal would idle a large factory in Lima, Ohio as well as halt work at dozens of subcontractors in Pennsylvania, Michigan and other states.
Opposing the Pentagon’s plans is Abrams manufacturer General Dynamics, a nationwide employer that has pumped millions of dollars into congressional elections over the last decade. The tank’s supporters on Capitol Hill say they are desperate to save jobs in their districts and concerned about undermining America’s military capabilities.
So far, the contractor is winning the battle, after a well-organized campaign of lobbying and political donations involving the lawmakers who sit on four key committees that will decide the tank's fate, according to an analysis of spending and lobbying records by the Center for Public Integrity.
Sharp spikes in the company’s donations — including a two-week period in 2011 when its employees and political action committee sent the lawmakers checks for their campaigns totaling nearly $50,000 — roughly coincided with five legislative milestones for the Abrams, including committee hearings and votes and the defense bill’s final passage last year.