President Obama is mulling an executive order to force big government contractors to disclose their political spending. He should issue it immediately. But he should go further - banning all political activity by companies receiving more than half their revenues from the federal government.
Consider Lockheed Martin, the nation's largest contractor. It has received more than $19 billion in federal contracts so far this year. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, Lockheed has already spent more than $3 million lobbying Congress this year.
Lockheed supports a platoon of Washington lawyers and lobbyists dedicated to getting more federal contracts. Sixty-four of Lockheed's lobbyists are former congressional staffers, Pentagon officials and White House aides. Two are former members of Congress. As such, they used to be on the public payroll, representing us. Now we continue to pay them, indirectly, through the government contracts Lockheed gets. But their job is to improve Lockheed's bottom line.
Lockheed also has been spending more than $3 million a year on political contributions to friendly members of Congress. On top of this, Lockheed gives money to the Aerospace Industries Association to lobby for a bigger defense budget and to support members of Congress who will vote accordingly. But we don't know how much because it's secret. We don't even know how much Lockheed is giving the U.S. Chamber of Commerce to lobby against the president's proposed executive order requiring disclosure of its political activities. That's secret, too.
Don't we have a right to know? After all, you and I and other taxpayers are Lockheed's biggest customer. As such, we're financing much of this lobbying and donating. Lockheed's political activities are built into its costs. So when Lockheed contracts with the federal government for a piece of military equipment, you and I and other taxpayers end up paying for a portion of these political activities.
It's one of the most insidious conflicts of interest in American politics.
Lockheed is hardly alone in using taxpayer money to get fatter contracts from taxpayers. All of the 10 biggest government contractors are defense contractors. Every one of them gets most of its revenue from the federal government. And every one uses a portion of that money to lobby for even more defense contracts.
That's one reason the defense procurement budget keeps expanding. Next year's expected drawdown of troops from Afghanistan and Iraq is supposed to save money. But Lockheed and other giant defense contractors have made sure all anticipated savings will go to new weapons systems.
Lockheed recently delivered a budget bombshell with a proposed tab of more than $1 trillion for a fleet of F-35 joint-strike fighter jets. That doesn't even include $385 billion that the Defense Department will spend to buy 2,500 of the stealth planes.
Tom Burbage of Lockheed acknowledged that the "T" word, as he gently put it, "causes a lot of sensational reaction ... because no one ever dealt with 'T's before in the program." That's an understatement. Congress is nonetheless willing to fund these mammoth projects as if the nation didn't have a long-term budget crisis.
Brace yourself. In the wake of last year's Supreme Court decision in Citizens United vs. Federal Election Commission, there's no limit on what Lockheed and other defense contractors can spend on politics.
But why should you and I and other taxpayers pay Lockheed to lobby for the trillion-dollar F-35 and support politicians who will vote for it? Why should we pay for the political activities of Northrop Grumman and Boeing to come up with even more aerospace weapons systems? Or for Raytheon and General Dynamics to procure more high-tech weapons? Or for Blackwater and Halliburton to procure more private military contract workers?
The answer is, we shouldn't.
Over half a century ago, President Dwight Eisenhower warned of the dangers of an unbridled military-industrial complex, as he called it. It's now a military-industrial-congressional complex. And after Citizens United, it's more unbridled than ever.
That's why the president 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. Put an end to this increasingly expensive conflict of interest.