Robert B. Reich: Follow money behind the money
President Obama is said to be considering an executive order requiring federal contractors to disclose their political spending. He should sign it immediately.
But he should go further and ban all political spending by federal contractors that receive more than half of their revenue from government.
Ever since the Supreme Court’s shameful Citizens United decision in early 2010, big corporations have been funneling large amounts of cash into American politics, often secretly.
That’s bad enough. But when big government contractors do the funneling, American taxpayers foot the bill twice over: We pay their lobbying and campaign expenses. And when those efforts nab another contract, we pay for stuff we often don’t need.
This is especially true for defense contractors, the biggest federal contractors of all.
A study by St. Louis University political scientist Christopher Witko reveals a direct relationship between what a corporation spends on campaign contributions and the amount it receives back in government contracts.
A case in point is America’s largest contractor, Lockheed Martin. More than 80 percent of Lockheed’s revenues come from the U.S. government, mostly from the Defense Department.
Yet it’s hard to say Lockheed has given American taxpayers a good deal for our money.
For example, Lockheed is the main contractor for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter — the single most expensive weapons program in history, and also one of the worst. It’s been plagued by so many engine failures and software glitches that Lockheed and its subcontractors practically had to start over this year.
Why do we keep throwing good money after bad?
Follow the money behind the money. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, Lockheed’s political action committee spent more than $4 million on the 2014 election cycle and has already donated more than $400,000 to candidates for 2016.
The top congressional recipient of Lockheed’s largesse is Mac Thornberry (R-Texas), chairman of the House Armed Services Committee. Second-highest is Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-New Jersey), chair of the defense subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee. Third is Kay Granger (R-Texas), the defense subcommittee’s vice chair.
Lockheed also maintains a squadron of Washington lawyers and lobbyists dedicated to keeping and getting even more federal contracts. The firm spent more than $14 million lobbying Congress last year.
Remarkably, 73 out of Lockheed’s 109 lobbyists are former Pentagon officials, congressional staffers, White House aides or members of Congress.
You and I and other taxpayers shouldn’t have to pay Lockheed’s lobbying expenses, but these costs are built into the overhead Lockheed charges the government in its federal contracts.
And we shouldn’t foot the bill for Lockheed’s campaign contributions, but these are also covered in the overhead the firm charges — including the salaries of executives expected to donate to Lockheed’s political action committee.
The 10 largest federal contractors are all defense contractors, and we’re indirectly paying all of them to lobby Congress and buy off politicians.
To state it another way, we’re paying them to hire former government officials to lobby current government officials, and we’re also paying them to bribe current politicians — all in order to keep or get fat government contracts that often turn out to be lousy deals for us.
Fifty-four years ago, President Dwight Eisenhower warned of the dangers of an unbridled “military-industrial complex,” as he called it. Now it’s a military-industrial-congressional complex. After Citizens United, it’s less bridled than ever.
That’s why President Obama shouldn’t stop with an executive order requiring government contractors to disclose their political contributions. He should ban all political activities by corporations getting more than half their revenues from the federal government. That includes Lockheed and every other big defense contractor.
Print This Article