Congress has approved a defense policy bill that the president has signed each of the past 6 years, but this year, it’s struggling. The House and Senate disagree over many of its provisions, including the financing and direction of individual military programs within an overall budget exceeding $600 billion.
As a result, the resolution of these disputes in the next few weeks will fall to a relatively small group in Washington – just 48 lawmakers. And as it turns out, the group is remarkably beholden to the private defense companies whose profits depend on their decisions.
The lawmakers sit on what’s known as a conference committee, whose deliberations — but not decisions — are secret. It’s tasked with forging a version of the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2016 that both chambers will approve. And, according to an analysis by the Center for Public Integrity, those particular lawmakers from 2003 through 2014 got four times as much defense industry funding for their elections and leadership committees, in total, as the members of the House and Senate Armed Services committees who were not appointed as conferees.
Over this period, the 48 conferees received a total of $20.6 million in inflation-adjusted dollars from the political action committees affiliated with the top 75 defense contractors and from their employees, according to the Center’s analysis, or an average of $430,049 apiece. The 41 members of the Armed Services committees who weren’t appointed conferees received roughly $5.2 million in the same period, or an average of $126,465 apiece. The large contractors who donated included such firms as Lockheed Martin, Boeing, General Dynamics, Raytheon, Northrop Grumman, and Booz Allen Hamilton.
One reason the conferees got more is that they tend to be more senior lawmakers, and academic studies show that lawmakers tend to attract more funding from the industries whose fate they influence as their seniority increases.
The 32 House members appointed as conferees include 27 Republicans and Democrats drawn from the most senior of that chamber’s 63 Armed Services members. The nine Republican Senate conferees include the seven most senior of the 14 GOP Armed Services members. Only among the Senate Democrats on the conference panel is there a mostly even split by seniority, with three of the most junior members serving alongside four of the top ranking Democrats.
In several studies of the committee system, Randall Kroszner at the University of Chicago and Thomas Stratmann at George Mason University concluded that as lawmakers gain committee seniority they are more likely to receive higher contributions from corporate-run political action committees and to receive more frequent contributions from the same donors. Other studies have shown that members who give more of their campaign funds back to their parties are more likely to secure coveted committee assignments.
On the House side, more than half of those named to the conference committee have served on Armed Services for at least a decade. That includes the chairman and a leader of the conference committee, Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, who collected a total of $933,415 from the largest 75 contractors, according to the Center’s analysis. That made him the highest overall recipient of contractor funds among all of the 89 members of the House and Senate Armed Services Committees.
Taking money from the industry that lawmakers help oversee is not a partisan issue on the House Armed Services committee. The ranking Democrat, Rep. Adam Smith of Washington state, has collected $857,726. Other conferees include Republican subcommittee chairmen Reps. Mike Rogers of Alabama ($764,323), Rob Wittman ($649,969) and Randy Forbes ($618,184), both of Virginia; and ranking Democratic subcommittee members Reps. Joe Courtney of Connecticut ($632,151) and Jim Langevin of Rhode Island ($618,084).
The conferees from Senate Armed Services include the panel’s chairman, Sen. John McCain ($694,508) and its ranking member, Sen. Jack Reed ($788,351). Among the other Senate conferees are all ten of the subcommittee chairmen and ranking members, including Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson of Florida ($884,968), who is the second-highest overall recipient of contractor funds after Rep. Thornberry, and Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss. ($811,111).
Also on the conference committee, although not a subcommittee chairman, is Sen. James M. Inhofe, R-Okla. ($808,789). Inhofe, the former ranking member on Senate Armed Services, could have contested McCain for the chairmanship when the Republicans regained control of the Senate, but opted instead to chair the Environment and Public Works committee.
Members of the conference committee are slated to hold their deliberations behind closed doors, as they usually do, so it will be hard for outsiders to see which lawmakers are carrying the most water for their donors. The timing and locations for those meetings is also a secret. “Meetings happen in a variety of locations,” Claude Chafin, Thornberry’s committee spokesman, told the Center. Asked about the schedule, he said, “The conference meetings are closed. We do not release a public schedule of meetings.”
During the drafting stage, the House Armed Services committee held its deliberations in public, while the Senate committee worked behind closed doors. That prompted a protest from the Project on Government Oversight, a nonprofit watchdog group, which argued that — with more than half a trillion dollars at stake and national security policies dependent on the vote — American taxpayers deserved to see how the bill was crafted.
“I don’t want to say that just because something is held behind closed doors there’s impropriety,” said POGO public policy associate Elizabeth Hempowicz, “but why not hold it in open session?”
The bottom line, though, is that when the select group of lawmakers meets to hash out their differences, they’ll have campaign wallets stuffed more fully with industry contributions than many other members. How much will those contributions influence their decisions? We’ll know by the end of summer. In a June 19 interview with Stars and Stripes, McCain said he’s “totally convinced we can get the bill back out of conference in July.”
It’s still unclear, however, whether the deliberations will be for naught. Obama has threatened to veto the legislation for adding almost $40 billion to a special Overseas Contingency Operations war account, in order to fund basic military operations. The fund is exempt from mandatory budget caps, unlike other military programs.
While the annual National Defense Authorization Act helps decide key defense policies and sets budget ceilings, spending will be set by the appropriations bills. Democrats, in sync with the administration, have vowed to block the appropriations bills if they use the wartime account while continuing to cap domestic spending.
*The Center calculated campaign contributions in 2014 dollars from the top 75 defense contractors, as ranked in fiscal 2013, using campaign data compiled by The Center for Responsive Politics as well as data from the Federal Election Commission.
This story was co-published with Politico Magazine.