This Is How the Biggest Arms Manufacturers Steer Millions to Influence US Policy

Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin listens to a question.
Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin listens to a question as he speaks during a media briefing at the Pentagon, Friday, Feb. 19, 2021, in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

Five of the nation's biggest defense contractors -- Lockheed Martin, Boeing, Northrop Grumman, Raytheon Technologies and General Dynamics -- spent a combined $60 million in 2020 to influence policy, according to a new report from the Center for Responsive Politics.

The paper, "Capitalizing on conflict: How defense contractors and foreign nations lobby for arms sales," details how a network of lobbyists and donors steered $285 million in campaign contributions and $2.5 billion in lobbying spending over the last two decades, as well as hiring more than 200 lobbyists who previously worked in government.

The amount of money at stake is immense, both at home and abroad, the center states on its website, Not only is a significant portion of the Pentagon's $740 billion annual budget spent on weapons, the report explains, but American defense firms agreed to sell $175 billion in weapons to other countries over the last year. That includes deals to sell $23 billion in F-35 Joint Strike Fighters and drones to the United Arab Emirates, and billions more in sales to Taiwan and Saudi Arabia, it adds.

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The practice appears unlikely to change significantly under the Biden administration. The report notes that while President Joe Biden issued an order restricting officials who leave the White House from quickly lobbying the executive branch or registering as foreign agents, several of his appointees have ties to the defense industry. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, for example, sat on Raytheon's board before joining the administration.

And since Biden's inauguration, the report states, the State Department has approved the sale of $85 million in missiles from Raytheon to Chile, and a $60 million deal between Lockheed Martin and Jordan to provide F-16 Fighting Falcons and services.

Foreign nations that are among the arms industry's biggest customers also spend heavily to influence U.S. policy, often to the tune of tens of millions of dollars in spending covered by the Foreign Agents Registration Act. However, the report notes that some nations that spend the most, such as South Korea and Japan, focus more on trade and commercial issues than military spending.

Australia, the United Arab Emirates, Taiwan and Saudi Arabia are some of the other major buyers of American weapons.

Defense lobbyists are also among the best-connected in Washington, D.C., the report states. Of the 663 lobbyists working for defense contractors, nearly three-quarters used to work for the federal government -- the highest percentage of any industry, according to the report.

"These connections make for cozy relationships and highly useful contact lists," the report says. "Overworked and underpaid congressional staffers can also hope that lucrative lobbying jobs await them at the same companies who come to them pushing their own agendas."

The so-called "revolving door" also exists on Capitol Hill, the report adds. Over the last 30 years, nearly 530 staffers have both worked for a member of the Armed Services and Foreign Relations committees of both houses of Congress or the Defense Appropriations subcommittees, and then as a lobbyist for defense companies.

The report highlights former Defense Secretary Mark Esper as an example of the revolving door in action. Esper worked for the Senate Foreign Relations and House Armed Services committees in the late 1990s and early 2000s, as well as an assistant deputy secretary of defense, before moving to Raytheon's government relations office. After seven years in that job, President Donald Trump made him secretary of the Army and then head of the Defense Department.

-- Stephen Losey can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @StephenLosey.

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