The top U.S. weapons manufacturers are largely sitting out the 2012 presidential race, opting instead to pour millions into congressional races as the firms use campaign cash to influence lawmakers' fight over massive defense cuts.
The five biggest American arms manufacturers have donated a combined $7.1 million into the presidential and congressional races so far, according to data analyzed by U.S. News & World Report. But $6.8 million of that amount has gone to congressional candidates, with $4.2 million donated to GOP Capitol Hill hopefuls thus far.
Lockheed Martin, Boeing, Northrop Grumman, General Dynamics and Raytheon have given $156,182 to President Obama's re-election bid, and $116,101 to Mitt Romney's campaign, according to data compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics.
General Dynamics and Raytheon were the lone two of the so-called "Big Five" that donated more to the former Massachusetts governor. Romney has vowed to build more Navy war ships, which would be a boon for GD. Raytheon is headquartered in Romney's home state.
Several defense experts were surprised about one aspect of the firms' presidential campaign donations: How miniscule they are.
"These amounts are surprisingly small for companies that depend so heavily on government customers," says Loren Thompson, COO of the Lexington Institute and a defense industry consultant.
And in the age of Super PACs donating unprecedented amounts to both Obama and Romney, the contributions of weapons makers simply is being "dwarfed," says Thompson.
Republicans are typically judged to be more pro-military, and by extension, friendlier to the nation's defense sector. So why have the Big Five donated more to Obama? After all, as commander in chief, Obama approved former Defense Secretary Robert Gates's proposal in April 2009 to kill or truncate 50 major weapons programs. He also beat lawmakers to the punch by calling for a $400 billion, decade-long cut to planned military spending.
"Contrary to popular myth, defense companies are full of Democrats who will support the Obama ticket, even though it's likely to be bad news for their businesses," says Thompson. "The senior management teams at General Dynamics, Northrop Grumman and Lockheed Martin contain many self-made executives who remember what it was like to be in the working class. In many cases, success has not altered their political preferences."
Lawrence Korb, a former senior Pentagon official now with the Center for American Progress, says if polls throughout the summer and into the fall indicate Obama and Romney are headed for a photo finish in November, Obama's $40,081 lead will shrink.
"If this thing stays close, I think you'll definitely see that difference tighten up," says Korb. "One reason the president has an advantage right now is after the Republican primary, it didn't look like anyone could beat Obama. That's no longer the case, however."
Meantime, the nearly $7 million the Big Five have donated to congressional candidates is raising eyebrows, but the reason is clear: Lawmakers control the firms' fate.
Congress has around six months to find a way to void around $500 billion in additional cuts to planned national defense spending. Pentagon officials say they would take on about $492 million of that amount while defense executives are warning about 1 million lost jobs next year alone.
Lawmakers facing re-election in the scores of districts and states where the weapons industry thrives are getting increasingly anxious about deep cuts to planned spending.
GOP House Armed Services Committee Chairman, California Republican Rep. Howard "Buck" McKeon, has led the charge on Capitol Hill, vociferously and passionately warning about what he says would be the disastrous effect on national security the new cuts would bring.
The top arms manufacturers have responded by filling McKeon's campaign coffers. Lockheed Martin has contributed $64,250 to McKeon, with Northrop Grumman donating $50,500 and Boeing giving $31,750, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
McKeon's Armed Services Committee counterpart, Washington Democract Rep. Adam Smith, also has been rewarded for his cries against more Pentagon cuts. Boeing and Northrop have contributed around $25,000 each to Smith.
Some Washington insiders, however, say congressional leaders and not the Armed Services Committee—which has oversight primarily of Pentagon policies and not its budget—will determine whether the military's budget is cut further. That's because, short of a special measure that might fail in the Senate, voiding the defense cuts requires a broader debt-reduction bill that cuts $1.2 trillion in federal spending. And Republicans and Democrats remain deeply divided along ideological lines about how to best write such a massive bill.
Defense firms are not blind to congressional leaders' role in determining their collective fate. For instance, House Speaker Rep. John Boehner, an Ohio Republican, has received tens of thousands in campaign cash from weapon manufacturers.
"These guys play hardball," says Korb. "That's why [former President] Dwight Eisenhower called them the mil-industrial complex, and issued that famous warning."
John T. Bennett covers national security and foreign policy for U.S. News & World Report. You can contact him at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter.
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