K St. swarms on Pentagon’s ‘wish lists’

By Megan R. Wilson - 04/16/15 06:00 AM EDT

The re-emergence of Pentagon “wish lists” to Congress has ignited a fierce lobbying battle among some of the world’s largest contractors, who are now vying to supply the yet unfunded equipment, weaponry and services.

Lockheed Martin, Boeing, General Dynamics, Raytheon, Northrop Grumman and BAE Systems make some of the top-line items that show up in the Defense Department’s “unfunded priority” requests submitted by military branches last month.

Together, the requests total about $21 billion, and K Street has already begun jockeying for a share of the bounty.

“Any time you have those resources at stake, you’re going to have people lobbying their programs or their equipment,” said John Scofield, a founding partner at S-3 Group, a boutique lobbying firm that handles a lot of appropriations work. 

“[The requests are] important because the Congress has got a role to play, and it’s to get an unvarnished opinion of what [the service branches’] actual needs are,” he said.

The requests are also important for advocacy, lobbyists say, because they serve as evidence that contractors’ wares are in demand.

“You can say, ‘See, people really want this stuff,’ ” said Jim Dyer, a principal at the Podesta Group whose clients include Lockheed and General Dynamics. 

Each of the companies appearing on the Pentagon’s wish list spends millions each year to lobby the federal government. While it’s impossible to tell how much of that cash goes into directing Congress on budget priorities, many contractors depend on federal business to keep plants open.

President Obama’s request for the Defense Department goes about $38 billion over the budget spending caps imposed by Congress several years ago, totaling roughly $535 billion.

Some of those surplus dollars could be spent to an “overseas contingency operations” (OCO) account, though the White House places stricter requirements on what that coffer can be used to buy.

The OCO in Obama’s budget already holds about $58 billion in funds for both the Department of Defense and the State Department, so it’s unclear how much more Congress will add to it.

Lobbyists are busy trying to make sure that some of their clients’ pet projects are swapped in — or in some cases, protected from being swapped out — as a way to pay for other items and services. 

For example, the Navy asked appropriators to set aside $1.15 billion for a dozen Boeing Super Hornet jets as part of its request, which would help keep open the factories that produce them.

“Now that the Navy has identified the need for 12 additional aircraft, Boeing will continue to work with them to highlight this need with Congressional leaders,” a company spokeswoman told The Hill in an email.

Other items in the Pentagon’s request include a total of more than $2 billion in Lockheed Martin F-35 fighter jets and $168.5 million in Javelin missiles, which are made by Raytheon and Lockheed Martin.

Northrop Grumman and Lockheed refused to comment, and Raytheon did not respond to a request for comment. 

Watchdogs, meanwhile, are dubious of the process.

“There’s very little behind any of these that shows justification for it and the need, compared to the level of justification that goes into the president’s budget request,” said Steve Ellis, the vice president for Taxpayers for Common Sense. 

He said that the $21 billion — if funded in its entirety — would put the wish list process above all but nine federal agencies in terms of spending.

“Cynically, it provides lobbyists an opportunity to swap out the president’s priorities for their own,” Ellis said. “It’s crazy to think about how much money is being thrown at the Pentagon, and it’s still not enough.”

The controversy is nothing new, as unfunded priority lists have a historically rocky history.

When then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld found out in 2001 that committees were soliciting commanders about additional funds, he wrote senior White House and Bush administration officials to warn them about the practice and called it a “serious, substantive problem for the Department of Defense” in a private memo.

Although he defended the practice publicly, it was clear that he and other Defense secretaries saw the practice as a way to undermine their authority. 

“Rightly or wrongly, the size of the list reflects whether a Defense secretary is a ‘strong king’ with a firm grip on the Pentagon or someone who the chiefs can circumvent with the Congress,” said one former Defense Department official who asked for anonymity in order to speak freely.

Beginning in 2009, after defense spending soared during U.S. conflicts in the Middle East, Defense Secretary Robert Gates dramatically curtailed the practice. His successor, Leon Panetta, completely nixed the wish lists in 2012.

Under subsequent leaders, Chuck Hagel and now Ash Carter, they’ve made a comeback. Some advocates argue that service branches submitting unfunded requests are more crucial than past years.

“The overall defense budget picture is also significantly grimmer than when Gates and Panetta brought the hammer down on unfunded lists,” the former official continued, “which could explain the more permissive attitude by Hagel and Carter towards the services submissions in the last two years.”

According to one defense lobbyist, the House Appropriations Committee almost did not ask the military branches about their unfunded requests because lawmakers became “very concerned about what the numbers would be.”

“The optics around such a huge [unfunded priority] list is not great,” the lobbyist added.