By Taylor Giorno

March 3, 2023


President Joe Biden’s administration is poised to announce the largest defense budget in history next week that will exceed the record-setting $858 billion defense budget Congress passed for 2023. All of this is happening as a debt ceiling crisis looms and defense spending, which makes up about nearly half of all federal discretionary spending, is on the chopping block.

The defense sector steered $18.9 million in campaign contributions to members of the 118th Congress during the 2022 election cycle, a new OpenSecrets analysis of federal campaign finance data found. More than $5.8 million of that went to the combined 84 members of the House and Senate Armed Services Committees tasked with crafting the annual defense budget.

Members of the House and Senate Armed Services Committees reported receiving $4.6 million and $1.2 million, respectively, from individuals and PACs affiliated with the defense sector during the 2022 election cycle. Virtually all of the top defense contractors avoided making PAC contributions in the months following the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol, although they resumed political giving — including to members who voted against certifying the 2020 election results — around the time Congress began work on the annual defense budget a few months later.

Potential federal budget cuts could pose a problem for defense companies, which have historically received one-third to one-half of the Pentagon budget, according to Brown University’s Costs of War Project. Most of that has gone to five companies — Lockheed Martin, Raytheon, Boeing, Northrop Grumman and General Dynamic. From 2016 to 2021, the Big Five defense contractors raked in more than $765 billion from the federal government, including $704.8 billion from the Department of Defense.

Individuals and PACs affiliated with Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, Raytheon and General Dynamics each made more federal contributions to political campaigns, committees and political parties during the 2022 election cycle than any other defense company. These five companies are also the only aerospace and defense prime contractors that bid on certain contracts to work directly with the government, a Department of Defense report on industry consolidation published in February 2022 found.

The Senate Armed Services Committee in particular holds significant power to shape military policy and, as a result, defense spending. The annual defense spending package passed last December was named the James M. Inhofe National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2023 after Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), the former chair and ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Chair — and a top recipient of political contributions from the defense sector — who retired at the end of the 117th Congress.

The 25 members of the Senate Armed Services Committee raked in $1.2 million of the $5.2 million current senators received from the defense sector during the 2022 election. That’s despite only six committee members actually running during the midterms: Sens. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.) and Mark Kelly (D-Ariz.) were up for reelection, and Sens. Eric Schmitt (R-Mo.), Markwayne Mullin (R-Okla.) and Ted Budd (R-N.C.) were elected to the Senate in 2022. Mullin and Budd were members of the U.S. House before they launched their 2022 Senate bids.

These six senators reported receiving a combined $423,537 from the defense sector during the 2022 election cycle. Kelly, who ran for reelection in one of the four races rated a toss-up by the Cook Political Report, accounted for $198,961 of that total; that’s more money than any other member of the Senate Armed Services Committee from the defense sector during the 2022 election cycle. The Arizona senator championed and secured a $25 billion increase to the National Defense Authorization Act’s top line in 2021 to, in part, fund “the development of new technologies to maintain our competitive edge,” Kelly told POLITICO.

The House Armed Services Committee also has a hand in shaping the annual defense budget. Then-ranking member, now-chair of the House Armed Services Committee Mike Rogers (R-Ala.) introduced the amendment to increase the act’s top line by $25 billion in 2021 and led GOP efforts to adopt a Democratic amendment to add $37 billion to Biden’s already historically large defense budget proposal in 2022. Rogers received more money from the defense sector than any other member of Congress during the 2022 election cycle, according to OpenSecrets data.

One-third of the $13.7 million the defense sector contributed to the U.S. House members during the midterms went to members of the 118th House Armed Services Committee. The 58 members of the House Armed Services Committee reported receiving an average of $79,588 from the defense sector during the 2022 election cycle, three times the average $26,213 other representatives reported through the same period.

Defense sector has historically contributed heavily to Armed Services Committee members

Given the influence held by armed services committee members to shape the defense budget, the defense sector – plus Boeing, which OpenSecrets codes as part of the transportation industry – has historically contributed heavily to members of the House and Senate Armed Services committees.

From the beginning of the 2002 election cycle to the end of the 2022 election cycle, the individuals and PACs affiliated with the defense sector steered $427.2 million to federal political candidates, committees and parties, adjusted for inflation. Nearly $89.3 million has gone to the campaigns of armed services committee members during that period, a new OpenSecrets analysis found.

The defense sector also spent $136.5 million on federal lobbying in 2022. Defense companies have spent an inflation-adjusted $3.6 billion on federal lobbying since 2001, and in that time they have hired over 2,700 so-called “revolving door” lobbyists who have worked in the same government that regulates and decides funding for the industry.

During the 2022 election cycle, eight of the top 20 recipients of defense sector contributions were members of the House or Senate Armed Services Committees. Another 10 are members of the House or Senate Appropriations Committees responsible for crafting the omnibus bill that funds defense spending authorized in the National Defense Authorization Act.

House Armed Services Committee Chair Rogers and Ranking Member Adam Smith (D-Wash.), House Appropriations Committee Chair Kay Granger (R-Texas), House Appropriations Defense SubcommitteeChair Ken Calvert (R-Calif.) and Ranking Member Betty McCollum (D-Minn.), and Senate Defense Appropriations Subcommittee Chair Jon Tester (D-Mont.) are all top recipients of defense sector contributions.

“There’s an enormous amount of money swirling around the political sector, and that money talks,” Rep. John Garamendi (D-Calif.), ranking member on the House Armed Services Readiness Subcommittee, told WBUR’s On Point on Wednesday during a discussion on consolidation in the defense industry. “The revolving door is real […] and it goes round and round.”

“The result of it is the systems are extraordinarily expensive and they are very very long in coming into reality, and the small companies that are absolutely necessary to produce many of the parts, they don’t exist,” Garamendi added.

House Armed Services Committee weighs challenges and competition in the defense industrial base

With On Point, Garamendi also said that the money allocated to ensure existing weapons systems are maintained and ready to be used “is constantly being taken to buy new, bright, shiny pieces of equipment. At the same time we don’t have the money to maintain what we already have.”

One of the weapons systems he pointed to was Lockheed Martin’s F-35, which has been dogged by years of delays, cost overruns and a range of technical problems, but somehow funding for the program survives every year. “My colleagues want to buy more F-35, that makes the companies very happy, but there’s no money to maintain them,” Garamendi said.

Soaring inflation, demand for weapons to Ukraine and the threat of great power competition with Russia and China are also fueling ever-higher defense budgets. Rogers cited these challenges, as well as “workforce shortages, bureaucratic hurdles and supply chains that remain too dependent on foreign sources for materials,” in a House Armed Services Committee hearing on the defense industrial base on Feb. 8.

But the chair also lamented that small and mid-sized defense contractors are “getting gobbled up by the primes” and advocated for finding pathways for smaller defense contractors to grow. Rep. Chris Deluzio (D-Pa.) — a freshman representative whose campaign reported receiving just $7,462 from the defense sector during the midterms — said the lack of competition is “harming our national security and readiness” by “depriving the American people of competition for key elements of our defense, tactical missiles, missiles, suppliers,” citing the Defense Department report on industry consolidation.

President and CEO of the Aerospace Industries Association Eric Fanning pushed back, arguing consolidation is “an important part of every industry’s evolution” in that it helps smaller companies access capital, workforce processes and expertise. When asked about production delays, Fanning blamed inconsistent funding and lack of predictability in the acquisition cycle, saying the industry “just needs that clear signal and a consistent signal” from its customer. The industry trade group spent more than $1.6 million on federal lobbying in 2022.

Language included in the authorization act last fall paved the way for non-competitive, multi-year contracts to replenish ammunition stockpiles and procure launchers, potentially benefitting contracting giants Lockheed Martin and Raytheon. President and CEO of the National Defense Industrial Association David Norquist called these multi-year contracts a “very valuable signal.”

But an emerging debate on defense spending cuts could add to that uncertainty. Granger made it clearthat she “does not support” cuts to defense spending, and Rogers has said he’s “not worried” that federal budget cuts would impact the defense budget. As the incoming chair of the House Armed Services Committee, he told POLITICO last fall that his top priority was to ensure “no cuts whatsoever to defense spending.”

-Senior Researcher Dan Auble contributed to this report.