So, for instance, ahead of the 2020 elections, individuals associated with Northrop Grumman gave $1.55 million to political campaigns, and Political Action Committees associated with the company gave $3.77 million. Seven-hundred and forty Northrop Grumman PAC donations went to specific candidates, including five senators and 14 House members from Utah, Wyoming, Nebraska, Colorado, Montana, and North Dakota—all would-be beneficiaries of the new missile—in amounts ranging from $2,000 to $10,000 each. A Northrop Grumman PAC donated $12,000 in 2018 and $10,000 in 2020 to campaigns for Cheney, the Wyoming Republican who objected to moving money away from the GBSD.
Third, in addition to donating to politicians and their campaigns, defense companies, like all major industries in America, spend considerable sums on lobbying, hiring professional influencers to try to achieve legislative results. In 2019, the defense aeronautics industry collectively spent $46.9 million on lobbying. Northrop Grumman outspent all its rivals, paying $13.6 million for 57 individual lobbyists to work on members of Congress. In 2020, it spent $12 million. Among its many campaigns, the company paid $60,000 between April and June of last year to have two partners in The Duberstein Group, David Schiappa and Anne Wall, influence members of the senate on the GBSD and the Defense Authorization Act, according to one of the company’s required lobbying disclosure forms. As is typical in important influence campaigns, one of those partners had Republican ties and one Democratic. Before they joined The Duberstein Group, Schiappa was the Republican secretary in the Senate, a position that schedules legislation and informs senators of pending bills; Wall was the floor director for Democratic Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois.
Lawmakers themselves also frequently become lobbyists. Remember Jon Kyl, the Arizona senator who, back in 2010, fought so hard to increase funding for nuclear modernization? Kyl left office in 2013 and became a lobbyist for Covington & Burling, where he worked on behalf of Northrop Grumman, among other clients. In 2017 and 2018 alone, Kyl’s work for Covington & Burling earned him nearly $1.9 million. In September 2018, after Arizona Sen. John McCain passed away, Kyl returned to fill his late colleague’s seat for four months, during which time he voted in favor of a $674 billion defense appropriations package and co-authored an op-ed in favor of acquiring low-yield nuclear warheads, controversial “small” atomic weapons. In January, 2019, Kyl returned to Covington & Burling as a lobbyist, completing what Politico lobbying reporter Theodoric Meyer called “one of the most elegant spins through Washington’s revolving door in recent memory.”
None of this—the revolving doors, the campaign donations, or the lobbying—is illegal or even unusual in US politics. But it is an essential part of understanding why $100 billion will be spent on the GBSD.
In addition, though—besides nuclear weapons’ deep entrenchment in local economies; besides Northrop pressing all the levers of power at its disposal; besides elected officials who equate ICBMs with a strong defense, and who tend to be from regions the missiles benefit financially—besides all this, there was another reason Warden could feel confident about the as-yet-uninked GBSD contract through the spring and summer of 2020, even as the pandemic raged, unemployment soared, civil unrest tore through cities, and the West Coast caught fire, upending so much for so many:
No other company was bidding for the project.
As anyone who has ever hired a plumber knows, it pays to get more than one bid, and the Pentagon, too, subscribes to this common-sense logic, at least in theory. In 2015, the undersecretary of defense for acquisition, Frank Kendall, told reporters that “the trend toward fewer and larger prime contractors has the potential to affect innovation, limit the supply base, pose entry barriers to small, medium and large businesses, and ultimately reduce competition — resulting in higher prices to be paid by the American taxpayer in order to support our warfighters.”
Several years ago, multiple companies did plan to compete for the GBSD. A single acquisition, though, clinched Northrop’s spot as prime contractor.