Rep. Rob Wittman, R-Va., is pictured while chairing the Seapower and Projection Forces Subcommittee of the House Armed Services Committee. (Photo: U.S. Navy)
Congressman funded by arms manufacturers defends ‘robust’ Pentagon spending

Why should defense industry CEOs promote their business in America’s op-ed pages when they have members of Congress to do it for them?

On Thursday, Politico Magazine published op-eds from Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) — “Defund the Pentagon: The Liberal Case” — and National Taxpayers Union policy and government affairs manager Andrew Lautz and R Street Institute director Jonathan Bydlak — “Defund the Pentagon: The Conservative Case” — arguing for reductions in Pentagon spending.

That same day, Defense News published a counterargument — “The Case for Robust Defense Spending” — by Rep. Rob Wittman (R-Va.), the ranking member of the Seapower and Projection Forces Subcommittee.

“Bringing stability to the globe and protecting our homeland comes at a price — it requires strong, robust funding of the Department of Defense,” wrote Wittman, later referring to “anti-defense spending rhetoric may play well for a certain form of politics.” But being the voice of “robust” Pentagon spending has also played well for Wittman’s political coffers.

Between 2007 and 2020, Wittman’s top contributors have been employees and the PACs associated with Northrup Grumman, a major aerospace firm and defense contractor based in Falls Church, Virginia. Northrup-related contributors have funneled $112,900 to Wittman’s campaign committee over the years. And that’s just the tip of iceberg for robust defense industry support for Wittman, whose subcommittee holds:

[J]urisdiction over Navy and Marine Corps acquisition programs and accounts related to shipbuilding and conversion, reconnaissance and surveillance, tanker, and airlift aircraft, ship and submarine-launched weapons, ammunition, and other procurements; Air Force programs and accounts related to bomber, tanker, and airlift aircraft; Army programs and accounts related to waterborne vessels; and Maritime policy and programs and accounts.

Beyond Northrup, total defense industry contributions to Wittman’s campaign committee from 2007 to 2020 were $1,234,420, making defense contractors far and away the biggest industry supporters of his congressional campaigns.

According to OpenSecrets, Wittman was the top House recipient of campaign contributions from “arms manufacturers, military contractors, defense research and development firms, naval shipbuilders and other defense-related services and manufacturing firms” in the 2018 political cycle and the second largest recipient of such contributions in the 2014 cycle.

When questioned about Wittman’s outsized campaign contributions from defense contractors, Defense News Executive Editor Mike Gruss responded that “defense contractors frequently contribute to the leaders of Congress’ defense related committees.” 

“In the piece you bring up, Wittman did not argue for robust spending on a particular program of record or for a specific contractor,” said Gruss. “Therefore, in our judgment, it did not merit an editor’s note.”

Wittman’s op-ed denounces “misguided and willfully ignorant” calls for cuts to defense spending, arguing:

In a time where China continues its unprecedented aggressive actions, such as pushing into contested territory in India, attempting to subdue Hong Kong and continuing to antagonize partner nations in the South China Sea; where Russia advances its malign global state-building agenda through overt means while simultaneously using paramilitary mercenaries such as the Wagner Group to do the Kremlin’s more insidious bidding; where Iran continues to terrorize the Middle East; and where North Korea remains a global nuclear threat, our response cannot be to cut our defense budget by nearly 50 percent, as suggested by some members of Congress.

That expansive view of the U.S. facing an onslaught of foreign threats, is all apparently to be combatted through globe spanning power projection, unchecked military growth, and the potential for U.S. military engagement on four continents. It stands in sharp contrast with Lautz and Bydlak’s calls for “defense hawks in both parties” to “sacrifice unchecked Pentagon priorities that aren’t making us any safer” and Sanders’ demand for his colleagues in the Senate to choose between spending “more money on endless wars in the Middle East while failing to provide economic security to millions of people in the United States” or voting “to spend less money on nuclear weapons and cost overruns, and more to rebuild struggling communities in their home states.”

The fact that the bipartisan push for cuts to the defense budget was rebutted by one of the military industrial complex’s top campaign recipients offers an indication of whose interests are most threatened by Sanders, Lautz and Bydlak’s calls for a reassessment of Pentagon spending.

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