Even before the congressional “supercommittee” failed to reach a deal averting drastic cuts to defense spending, one group of lawmakers began mobilizing to protect a favorite weapons program.
Reps. Kay Granger (R-Tex.) and Norm Dicks (D-Wash.) announced the formation of a Congressional Joint Strike Fighter Caucus with 49 members from both parties. Its purpose: to protect funding for the F-35 stealth fighter. The plane, as the most expensive weapons program in history, is one of the biggest potential targets in the defense budget.
The members of the caucus are also some of the top recipients of political money from the company that designs and builds the fighter, Lockheed Martin. The company’s political action committee and its employees have given the caucus members $1.3 million in political contributions over their careers, according to a Washington Post analysis of data from the Center for Responsive Politics.
Granger, whose west Fort Worth district includes the main Lockheed airplane-assembly plant, which employs 15,000, has received $210,000 from the company’s PAC and employees. That includes $33,500 so far this year.
The work of the Joint Strike Fighter Caucus has recently, in the wake of the supercommittee’s failure, become more pressured. Created by President Obama and congressional Republicans as part of a deal to raise the federal debt ceiling this summer, the supercommittee was charged with finding $1.2 trillion in budget cuts over the next decade. Since the 12 members failed to reach a compromise, the terms of the deal force an across-the-board cut of $1.2 trillion, with half coming from defense programs.
Spokesmen for Granger and Dicks did not respond to a request for comment Wednesday.
In a statement announcing the formation of the caucus, the lawmakers said their goal was to provide “accurate and timely information on the development, testing, and deployment of our next-generation fighter.”
Dicks, the top Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee, has received a total of $97,700 over his career from Lockheed’s PAC and employees.
Other top recipients of Lockheed money include Rep. Jerry Lewis (R-Calif.), the former Appropriations chairman, who has received $144,250, and Rep. Joe Barton (R-Tex.), who also represents Fort Worth and has received $129,950.
Lockheed spokesman Tom Casey said the company’s PAC supports lawmakers for a wide variety of reasons.
“Lockheed Martin supports a wide range of political leaders based on their level of interest and commitment in national security, homeland security, and other issues of importance to the corporation, including education and technology,” Casey said.
The supercommittee conceded defeat Monday, and cuts to the plane’s funding have already been floated as a possibility if Congress doesn’t amend its previous agreement. In a letter to lawmakers last week, Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta raised the specter of terminating the program entirely.
A more likely scenario is reducing the number of planes purchased, or scrapping one of the three designs the government has commissioned. A Navy version of the plane is designed for aircraft carriers and a Marine version can take off and land vertically, adding to the cost.
Panetta can help control which programs get cut if he submits a smaller budget, but Congress has the final say. The automatic spending cuts must begin in 2013, making weapons systems a more likely target than other areas of spending, such as closing bases, which could take longer to result in significant savings.
“You go where the money is,” said Todd Harrison, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. “For that reason alone, this program is likely to be a target.”
The F-35 program has been beset by cost overruns, raising the ire of some in Congress. Originally expected to cost $233 billion to design and build 2,866 planes, the program is now budgeted at $385 billion for a smaller fleet. Once maintenance and operating costs are included, estimates climb to $1 trilion.
“You could cover this up as long as the defense budget kept going up,” said Lawrence Korb, a senior fellow with the liberal Center for American Progress. “People are going to say, ‘Whoa, can we really afford this plane that costs twice as much as we thought?’ ”