Northrop Grumman Corp. (NOC) tripled its political giving and increased spending on lobbying as it fended off Obama administration efforts to cut spending for a version of its Global Hawk surveillance drone.
The defense contractor’s political action committee made $1.3 million in federal campaign donations during the first six months of 2013. That was second only to Honeywell International Inc. (HON) and three times the $372,000 contributed during the same period two years ago, Federal Election Commission reports show. Northrop spent $9.3 million to lobby from January to June, up from $8.6 million in the first half of 2012, according to U.S. Senate filings.
At the same time Northrop is boosting its Capitol Hill advocacy, U.S. lawmakers are considering rejecting, for the second consecutive year, the administration’s effort to reduce funding for the Global Hawk version known as Block 30. The Defense Department said the unmanned surveillance aircraft isn’t “affordable in an austere budget environment” and that upgraded models of the 58-year-old U-2 spy plane can fly the missions.
“There doesn’t appear to be any other pending issues that would cause such a dramatic change in campaign contribution behavior” by Northrop, the fifth-biggest Pentagon contractor, said Craig Holman, who lobbies for stricter campaign-finance laws for the Washington-based advocacy group Public Citizen. “There’s too much at stake. Their campaign contribution patterns reflect that.”
Mark Root, a spokesman for Falls Church, Virginia-based Northrop, declined to comment on specific donations or why the company’s PAC spending increased. He said the PAC contributes to members of both parties who sit on congressional committees of interest to the company or who represent districts with Northrop facilities.
Congress’s support of the Global Hawk drones shows how lawmakers are standing by favored weapons systems even when the Pentagon says the hardware must be eliminated or reduced in a time of declining funds. The automatic budget cuts known as sequestration call for reducing defense spending by $500 billion over a decade.
Defense officials also have tried and failed to persuade Congress to cut funding for the Bradley Fighting Vehicle from BAE Systems Plc (BA/) and cancel upgrades of General Dynamics Corp. (GD)’s M-1 tank.
“It’s fine to cut when you’re talking about the top line, but when it comes to parochial pork, lawmakers are still lining up to defend it,” said Steve Ellis, vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense, a Washington-based advocacy group that supports cuts in spending. “The Pentagon’s never been bashful about wanting everything under the sun. So when they say they don’t need something, Congress should take notice and cut.”
One of the Global Hawk’s champions is Representative Jim Moran of Virginia, a senior Democrat on the House Appropriations defense subcommittee, whose district includes Northrop’s headquarters. He said the decision to keep funding the Global Hawk was made on the merits, not on the basis of lobbying and campaign contributions.
“Some folks would like to think everything is political,” Moran said in an interview. “This is more about policy. We need to be on the cutting edge of technology.”
Northrop is developing a successor to the Block 30 version of the Global Hawk, which can stay airborne for 32 hours and has been used to support U.S. troops in Afghanistan and Iraq. The unmanned aircraft flies intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance missions over large areas.
The Global Hawk’s Block 30 version has “fundamentally priced itself out of our ability to afford it when the U-2 gives in some cases a better capability and in some cases just a slightly less capable platform,” Army General Martin Dempsey the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told the House Armed Services Committee in February 2012.
The administration said in its fiscal 2014 budget request that ending Global Hawk purchases would save $2.5 billion over five years. The Air Force also proposed putting into storage the 18 drones it had already bought after spending $3.4 billion to develop and build them.
Instead, Congress last year required the Pentagon to continue buying the Global Hawk Block 30, as would pending legislation for the fiscal year beginning Oct. 1.
“The Air Force continues to support the U-2 as the platform of choice,” Acting Air Force Secretary Eric Fanning said Sept. 16 at the Air Force Association’s Air and Space Conference at National Harbor in Maryland.
The House defense spending bill for the fiscal year beginning Oct. 1 instructs the Air Force to spend money previously approved to buy three more Global Hawk drones and to submit a plan for following that requirement within 90 days after the measure is signed into law. The Senate version also requires the Air Force to buy the drones.
The House in June separately approved legislation requiring the Pentagon maintain the fleet through Dec. 31, 2016.
“The Global Hawk spans much more territory, it’s more efficient, it’s unmanned and it’s the technology of the future,” Moran said. “The U-2 has been around since I was a kid. Any system that is as old as I am needs to be replaced.” Moran is 68 years old.
Northrop Grumman employees this year gave more money to members of the House Armed Services Committee than did those at any other company, donating $306,450 to their campaign committees and leadership PACs, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a Washington-based research group that analyzes donations. Employees of Morris Township, New Jersey-based Honeywell were second with $202,539.
House Armed Services Committee Chairman Howard “Buck” McKeon, a California Republican, joined Moran in complaining to Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel that the Air Force was delaying the congressionally mandated drone purchases.
“The Air Force has continued to ignore clear congressional intent,” the lawmakers wrote May 13.
McKeon received $14,600 from company executives on June 29, according to a computer-assisted analysis of FEC reports done by Bloomberg News. Moran received $15,600 from Northrop Grumman executives on April 3.
Northrop Grumman employees have given $190,200 to McKeon’s campaigns since 1991, more than any other donor, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. John Noonan, a McKeon spokesman, declined to comment.
Northrop’s lobbying expenditures during the first six months of 2013 were its largest in five years, Senate filings show. Of the 17 people registered to lobby for Northrop on Global Hawk, 13 previously worked on Capitol Hill, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.
“These are the folks with the understanding of how Washington, and specifically Capitol Hill, works and even more importantly, the connections,” said Sheila Krumholz, executive director for the Center for Responsive Politics.
The pending defense bills are H.R. 2397, H.R. 1960 and S. 1429.
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