What’s Washington’s gross political product? That is, how much, exactly, do corporations, trade groups and other special interests spend trying to influence the federal government? And who are the players involved in the process?
Unfortunately, these are questions with no clear answer. Corporate influence in Washington extends far beyond PAC contributions and registered lobbyists. Influence peddlers, including those with prior, high-level government service, ply their trade while avoiding activities that would require them to register as lobbyists. An analysis of the most recent quarterly lobbying reports by the Center for Responsive Politics finds that registered lobbyists disclosed less spending than in prior quarters. That trend of waning spending has continued for several years. Sunlight and other political observers have noted that the slump coincides with a rise in “shadow lobbying,” or government advocacy that skirts the legal threshold that would require public disclosure.
A realistic accounting of special interests’ Washington footprint must cover methods of influence that aren’t captured by regularly scheduled disclosures. To this end, over the next several months, Sunlight will be highlighting some of the subtler methods entrenched D.C. interests use to influence government.
A prominent example of the myriad ways special interests affect government comes from the defense industry.
Northrop Grumman, a major defense contractor that employs more than 65,000 people, relied on the U.S. government for 85 percent of its sales in the past three years, according to its latest annual report. It’s no surprise, then, that the corporations and its subsidiaries invest heavily in lobbying the federal government. In 2014, the company disclosed spending $10.2 million targeting an extensive range of legislation, including the National Defense Authorization Act and implementation of the Affordable Care Act, according to lobbying reports analyzed by the Center for Responsive Politics.
In addition to 40 registered lobbyists, however, Northrop Grumman’s five sectors also employ a bevy of government marketing and sales professionals, many of whom boast long careers in the branch of military to which they now sell the defense contractor’s products and services.
A Sunlight Foundation review of contributors to Northrop Grumman’s employee PAC from 2013 to March of 2015 finds 62 contributors whose job titles indicate interaction with government officials, either in a marketing or government affairs role. Of the individuals in that list, which is embedded below, 39 of those employees had experience in the federal government, nearly all of them in the military or intelligence spheres. Only 13 of them are registered as lobbyists.
While lobbyists are known for banking on their government contacts and insider knowledge, a review of employee profiles on Northrop Grumman’s website finds several examples of Northrop marketing specialists who have deep connections to the federal customers to whom they now market Northrop Grumman’s products.
Russ Anarde is the director of business development for Northrop Grumman’s military systems unit of the space systems division. The 28-year Air Force veteran’s final military assignment was as director of plans and programs for Air Force Space Command, according to his company biography.
Bill Bowling, Northrop’s corporate director for U.S. Marine Corps programs, “is directly responsible to develop and maintain a working relationship with senior members of the Marine Corps Marine Air Ground Task Force community,” and joined Northrop after 30 years in the U.S. Marine Corps, retiring as a colonel.
Kevin Campbell spent 37 years in the U.S. Army, retiring as a lieutenant general in charge of the Army’s Space and Missile Defense Command. He now contacts customers including the Missile Defense Agency — and the same Space and Missile Defense Command he once led — for Northrop Grumman.
Not one of those three individuals is required to register to lobby.
Under the Lobbying Disclosure Act of 1995 (LDA), individuals who earn money influencing federal policy — and spend more than 20 percent of their time on “lobbying activity” — must register with the House and Senate, disclose previous government employment and report which federal agencies and congressional offices were contacted on behalf of clients in quarterly disclosures.
Most individuals who market products to the government, however, are not required to register as lobbyists. Public Citizen’s Government Affairs Lobbyist Craig Holman explained to Sunlight that the law’s definition of lobbying activity only applies to contacts with so-called “covered” government officials, and that many routine contacts about a product would not be considered lobbying as long as specific legislation or contracts aren’t discussed. Responding to calls from government customers or offering general information about prices or products “is not the same as trying to solicit a government contract,” says Holman.
Aside from government marketers, there are even some government affairs specialists who may not fit in to the LDA’s precise dimensions for lobbyists. Their names do not appear in lobbying reports and information about the individual’s client, legislative goals and lobbying earnings go unreported.
Jeanine Esperne heads Washington Operations for Northrop Grumman’s Information Systems division and previously served as the Pentagon’s legislative affairs representative — or lobbyist — to the House. She describes her role as “overseeing lobbying and consulting agreements” and “coordinat[ing] advocacy on behalf of Northrop Grumman (IS) priority programs with customers in legislative and executive branches” on her profile on the networking website LinkedIn. She is not a registered lobbyist.
When asked about the corporation’s political involvement and its internal protocols for tracking lobbying activity, Randy Belote, Northrop Grumman’s vice president of Strategic Communications, told Sunlight in an email: “Northrop Grumman feels it is essential to participate in the democratic process and its lobbying activities and political action committee provide the mechanism for that participation.” He continued, “The company diligently adheres to the government’s regulations regarding reporting and disclosure of its lobbying activities.”
PAC to basics
Of course, the company also leverages the traditional methods of Washington allegiance-building.
According to the company’s description of its employees’ political action committee, “Participation in ENGPAC [Employees of Northrop Grumman PAC] offers our employees the opportunity to pool their resources to support candidates for office who are supportive of national security. ENGPAC contributions are made on a bi-cameral and bipartisan basis.”
The PAC’s giving surged in March, according to its most recent campaign filing. That month the committee gave $575,150 to candidates on both sides of the aisle — the committee’s largest monthly outlay in the 20 years since the PAC was established. The March total includes $15,000 contributions to the congressional and senatorial campaign arms of the Democratic party and $15,000 to the National Republican Senatorial Committee. It’s unclear what prompted the sharp uptick in donations, but one item on the corporation’s agenda is a lucrative contract to build a stealth bomber for the U.S. Air Force. Politico reports Northrop is facing stiff competition from Boeing and Lockheed Martin as it contends for the job.
In addition to dishing out campaign contributions to party committees and friendly members of Congress, the employee PAC hosts fundraisers for friendly lawmakers. However, since most of the details about fundraising events aren’t disclosed by campaigns, Sunlight and other outlets are dependent on invitees and news reports for much of the information we are able to aggregate for these events. (You can see our ever-growing database of political fundraisers at Political Party Time.)
While it’s not apparent which of its methods are most effective, it is clear that Northrop Grumman’s full-court press approach to Washington influence has paid dividends. The group clocked in at No. 17 on Sunlight’s list of the Fixed Fortunes 200 — the 200 companies that receive the most in revenue and subsidies from the federal government. From 2007 to 2012, the company earned more than $88 billion in federal business.