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Obama vs. the Lobbyists

A scorecard for the future of American politics.

| Tue Sep. 15, 2009 4:19 PM EDT

The F-22's False Promise

In April, Defense Secretary Robert Gates signaled the Obama administration's new philosophy on military spending by announcing an array of notable budget cuts intended to curtail or eliminate some of the unsuccessful or unnecessary weapons systems that litter the Pentagon's bloated budget and reflect the previous administration's military excesses. "We must reform how and what we buy," Gates explained, "meaning a fundamental overhaul of our approach to procurement, acquisition and contracting."

In Gates's crosshairs were projects like the F-22 Raptor jet fighter, a Cold War relic that's run wildly over-budget and never flown a mission in Iraq or Afghanistan; the VH-71 presidential helicopter, which Obama specifically insisted he didn't want or need; the C-17, a transport plane Gates said the country already had enough of; and the Army's lackluster Future Combat Systems modernization program, the brainchild of former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. After years of excessive military spending, Gates's plan to trim these wasteful projects (though, sadly, not the defense budget in toto) potentially presented a stark change of fortune to defense contractors and corporations accustomed to the beneficence of Washington's lawmakers.

In response, the defense industry and its lobbyists mobilized. Six months later, as new defense legislation staggers through Congress, just north of 1,000 defense-related lobbyists are hard at work. This year $62 million has been spent on Pentagon lobbying efforts. In particular, Lockheed Martin, the F-22's main manufacturer, has sunk almost $7 million into lobbying in 2009, in part through a campaign targeting lawmakers with F-22 manufacturing sites in their states, while extolling the number of jobs an F-22 program would create. Lockheed even launched a faux-grassroots website, PreserveRaptorJobs.com, to drum up public support for the plane. (It has since been taken down.)

Obama, however, stood firm. Even after House lawmakers tried to restore F-22 funding, the president insisted that he'd veto any bill with more of the planes in it. This was made crystal clear in a "Statement of Administration Policy" (SAP) on the House defense appropriations bill. The plane's loyal supporters like Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-GA) and Rep. John Murtha (D-PA) got the message and left the F-22 on the cutting-room floor.

But the question remains: How pyrrhic was the administration's F-22 "victory"? Gates has, as a start, agreed to order four more of the useless F-22s at a cost of $351 million a pop — they are included in the 2009 supplemental defense bill — and he plans to more than double the future run of F-35 Joint Strike Fighters, a cumbersome, accident-prone, prohibitively expensive plane like the F-22. It will surprise no one that the F-35 is also made by Lockheed — and it is easy to imagine that the F-35 commitment could, in fact, have been a corporate trade-off for the lost F-22, which Lockheed still hopes to sell abroad with the Senate's help.

And what about those other projects eyed by Gates: the VH-71 helicopter or the C-17 transport? The Obama administration, by all evidence, seems to be wilting in its defense of their termination. (That the second most powerful Pentagon official, William Lynn, is a former lobbyist for defense contractor Raytheon undoubtedly doesn't help.) The same SAP with the F-22 veto is noticeably softer on the VH-71, saying only that "the President's senior advisors would recommend that he veto the bill," but stopping short of insisting that the helicopter must go. As for the C-17, any kind of administration recommendation is MIA in the SAP.

"Gates and Obama got tough on the F-22, and in Congress the porkers backed off, and Murtha even took the F-22s he had in his bill out," Winslow Wheeler, director of the Straus Military Reform Project at the Center for Defense Information and a former Capitol Hill staffer for three decades, told TomDispatch. "But in the same bill, Murtha also packed in more C-17s, more presidential helicopters, more F-35 engines, challenging Gates and Obama. They need to understand that they need to put up a fight."

If Not Obama, Then Who?

Rahm Emanuel knew back in April that the administration was entering the ring, but how ready have Obama and his team been to duke it out on all fronts? On paper, Obama has appeared ready enough. In his moving address to Congress last week, for instance, he not only emphasized the need for a public option in health-care reform, but directly debunked the "bogus claims" being used to attack his health-care reform vision.

His actions, though, have been less reassuring. While committing his administration to the Afghan War, the President has appeared unwilling to fight defense boondoggles down the line, as he did in the case of the F-22, and he's been less than forceful in defending sorely needed financial reforms — like those for the $592 billion over-the-counter derivatives market — in the face of Wall Street's lobbying clout.

Once again, this isn't entirely surprising: For all the talk of the flood of small, individual donations to Obama's historic 2008 election campaign, its coffers overflowed with money from financial powerhouses like Goldman Sachs and JPMorgan Chase and corporations like General Electric, Google, and Microsoft. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, Obama still ranks near the top among all recipients when it comes to contributions from the health, defense, financial, and energy industries.

The same goes for Obama's staff. In an interview with Politico.com, Bill Moyers put it vividly. "I think Rahm Emanuel, who is a clever politician, understands that the money for Obama's reelection would come primarily from the health industry, the drug industry and Wall Street, and so he is a corporate Democrat who is destined, determined that there would be something in this legislation," Moyers asserted, that will appease those powerful interests.

If the president's sprawling agenda has revealed anything, it's the extent to which private industries and their foot soldiers on K Street and Capitol Hill influence — and in some cases dictate — American policymaking. Right now, about 12,500 federally registered lobbyists make their trade in Washington, but believe it or not, they're only a small slice of the pie. James Thurber, director of the Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies at American University, tells TomDispatch that the number of people in the political advocacy business who aren't registered — the astroturfers, public relations firms, and strategy groups, among others — number anywhere from 90,000 to 120,000. Conservatively speaking, that adds up to 168 influence peddlers for every member of Congress.

Now you know the players. The teams, uneven as they may be, are on the field. So take out that scorecard. Beating the Washington influence machine, flush with cash, amply staffed and relentless in its mission, will be no small feat for Obama's team. And if they fail, then it will be possible to say that no matter who's voted in, it's the influence machine that rules Washington

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