How the Defense Lobby Became Irrelevant

by Sara Sorcher, National Journal  |  published on January 2, 2014

Pentagon workers
The defense lobby was once both behemoth and bogeyman. It was the muscle behind the military-industrial complex, the puppeteer liberals blamed for moving money from food stamps to fighter jets. Above all, it was the Beltway powerhouse that made Congress cower.

Nobody is afraid of defense lobbyists now. Congress has defied them twice in two years, first by failing to undo the first round of defense cuts under sequestration, and again this week by floating a budget deal that would only partly pare back the next round. The fact that industry accepts this deal, a far cry from the grand bargain it demanded last year, shows just how far expectations have plummeted.

What laid low the once-mighty lobby? Hyperbole, and some hubris. In the waning days of 2012, the industry promised Armageddon unless Congress spared it from the sequester’s spending cuts. The Aerospace Industries Association doled out clocks that ticked off the days, hours, minutes, and seconds—a panic-inducing “countdown to disaster,” when more than a million defense jobs would be gouged. But when the lobbying blitz failed and the sequester guillotine fell, the industry was forced into an embarrassing position: It had cried wolf. Long after AIA’s ticking clocks ran down, employers had not sent the tens of thousands of layoff notices; major defense companies remained profitable; and the U.S. military—though far from unscathed—remained a global juggernaut.

Now, with another round of sequester cuts looming, the lobby is again sounding the alarm, but its past hyperbole has defanged its warning. “When they went full bore saying the sky is falling January 2, and then later on March 1, they were betting it would never actually come to pass—so no one would be able to say they were overhyping this or exaggerating the immediacy of the impact,” says Todd Harrison, a defense-budget analyst at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. “They miscalculated. Now the defense industry is left with its credibility damaged.”

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