CT defense giants increasingly political as Pentagon budget shrinks

Designated a "heavy hitter" by the Center for Responsive Politics, UTC PAC's 2014 donations may exceed those in 2012.

OpenSecrets.org

Designated a "heavy hitter" by the Center for Responsive Politics, UTC PAC's 2014 donations may exceed those in 2012.

Washington – Connecticut’s largest defense contractors are stepping up political donations to key lawmakers as competition increases for shrinking defense dollars.

According to the watchdog group Center for Responsive Politics and reports filed with the Federal Election Commission, since 2000 the United Technologies PAC has steadily increased its spending in each campaign cycle, donating more than $1.6 million to candidates running in 2012. That was a presidential election year, when campaign contributions normally surge.

But the political action committee formed by UTC, parent company to Sikorsky Aircraft and Pratt & Whitney, has donated more than $1.1 million in the current campaign cycle, as of the end of February – and contributions to candidates are expected to increase during the summer as November’s elections get near. That means UTC’s PAC is on course to break its 2012 record of spending.

The same political giving is happening with General Dynamic’s PAC and the defense industry as a whole. The General Dynamics PAC spent $2 million in 2012, and it has spent more than $1 million so far in this cycle. General Dynamics is the parent company of Electric Boat, the Groton-based nuclear submarine maker.

“The fact that defense spending is being trimmed is one reason” for the increase in political activity, said Viveca Novak, communications director for the Center for Responsive Politics.

Bill Allison, editorial director at the nonpartisan Sunlight Foundation, said the draw-down of troops from Afghanistan, the automatic spending cuts known as sequester and the efforts in general to cut government spending have prompted defense contractors to funnel more money to decision-makers in Washington.

“As they fight over a smaller pot of money, they are giving money to shore up their supporters,” Allison said.

Marty Hauser, spokesman for Hartford-based United Technologies, said “bumps” in giving are expected in election years, especially in years when key lawmakers allied to the industry face tough elections. Some of those lawmakers, who sit on armed services committees or appropriations subcommittees with jurisdiction over the defense budget, are the most vulnerable incumbents running this year. These include Democratic Sens. Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, Mark Pryor of Arkansas and Kay Hagen of North Carolina. In addition, Sen. Thad Cochran, R-Miss., an appropriator and friend to the industry, is facing a tough primary challenge from a Republican who criticizes the lawmaker’s support of spending on projects and programs.

“We are all concerned about the government budget,” Hauser said, adding, “Any company that is responsible about their business should be.”

The bipartisan two-year budget agreement in January eased defense budget cuts. But the sequester may return in full force if a partisan war on spending reignites in Congress. The danger of another government shutdown, which temporarily disrupted payments to defense contractors and ended some Pentagon services contractors needed, is also a worry, Hauser said.

Paying into the PACs

The United Technologies PAC is funded by the company’s top officers, who give the maximum allowed, $5,000. Dozens of workers at Pratt &Whitney, Sikorsky and other UT companies give $416, an amount deducted from their paychecks.

“We encourage our personnel to contribute, but we don’t require them to do so,” Hauser said.

The Center for Responsive Politics’s list of the 10 PACs that have donated the most to federal candidates this year, while not including UTC’s, includes other defense industry giants, including Lockheed Martin, Boeing, Honeywell and Northrup Grumman.

Fighting for home interests  

Congress eliminated earmarks, or special projects lawmakers sought to help hometown interests, in 2010 as part of an effort to reform Congress.

Despite the earmark ban, Allison said defense contractors can still urge lawmakers to protect the ships, planes, tanks and weapons systems from the budget axe.

They can also influence lawmakers to pressure the Pentagon to buy things.

Recently, for example, several members of Congress, led by Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-3rd District, and including Rep. Elizabeth Esty, D-5th District, asked Pentagon officials and  President Obama to end military contracts with Russian defense company Rosoboronexport, which provides Afghan forces with helicopters. Stratford-based Sikorsky is eager for that contract for 24 outstanding helicopters.

While Connecticut lawmakers have long lobbied the Pentagon over the Rosoboronexport contract, their position has been strengthened by Russia’s aggression toward Ukraine.

“The contract with Rosoboronexport was questionable from the beginning and is now entirely indefensible in light of (Russian President Vladimir) Putin’s aggressive actions in annexing Crimea,” Esty said in a statement.

The Pentagon has not directly responded to the lawmakers’ request, although Rear Adm. John Kirby has said, “We understand the concerns expressed by members of Congress over this contract. And we will respond appropriately to those concerns through the proper channels.”

Connecticut’s lawmakers have also pressed the Air Force to purchase new search-and-rescue helicopters, because the contract would likely go to Sikorsky, and they fought to protect the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, at $392 billion for 2,443 aircraft, the most expensive defense project, whose engine is manufactured by Pratt & Whitney.

“I am proud to continue our theme of keeping the eagle flying by ensuring Connecticut is the single source for the F35 engine, and through contracts for the Air Force’s Next Generation Tanker and submarines,” said Rep. John Larson, D-1st District in a statement. “These contracts strengthen our advanced manufacturing economy and the jobs it provides.”

 Fighting for Capitol Hill ears

The defense industry is so important to Connecticut that two members of its congressional delegation, Rep. Joe Courtney, D-2nd District, and Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., sit on Armed Services committees.

“Connecticut is our largest state,” because company headquarters and most UT companies are located in Connecticut, Hauser said.

Which is why defense contractors give generously to the campaigns of Connecticut lawmakers.

UTC’s PAC and individuals working for UTC companies have given Larson, whose congressional career began in 1997, $292,750, making United Technologies the largest source of Larson’s campaign donations, according to an analysis by the Center for Responsive Politics.

For Courtney, who has represented the district where Electric Boat is headquartered since 2007, the General Dynamics’ PAC and Electric Boat employees combined have given his campaign more than anyone else has, $109,950.

DeLauro, who was elected to the House in 1990 and whose district is home to Sikorsky, has received $130,000 from the UTC PAC and the company’s employees.

Connecticut’s senators, both Democrats, have also received money from the industry, though not as much. Blumenthal has received more than $30,000 in campaign donations that are tied to General Electric, a company whose defense business is growing, and Sen.Chris Murphy has received $61,550 in donations linked to GE.

Mike Lewis, managing director of The Silverline Group, a Washington-area defense consulting firm, said generous contributions to lawmakers are expected to continue “as defense firms fight aggressively for Capitol Hill’s ears.”

While Connecticut’s defense industry may face a rocky road in the short term — especially Sikorsky because one of its biggest clients, the Army is slated to shrink — Lewis thinks Connecticut’s big defense contractors are well positioned for the future.

Pratt & Whitney and Electric Boat will continue to have plenty of work on the F-35 engine and new nuclear submarines, he said. Even Sikorsky will feel the demand for new helicopters eventually, as the Pentagon’s current fleet ages, because “there’s just not enough air lift capability,” Lewis said.

“Will Sikorsky feel the pain in the next 12 to 24 months? Yes, probably,” he said. “But it is here for the long run.”

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