Case Overview, Defense Budget Line Item

This document provides background information and summarizes the debate over a Defense Department budget line item. The links to the left will lead you to public documents that we have found.

           The Defense Department budget is an unwieldy Leviathan, composed of countless line items, each specifying funds for a facility, personnel, or a weapons system, or giving directions to the Pentagon about its operations. Occasionally one of these line items attracts the attention of the world outside: congressional offices, the news media, and other defense contractors. More often than not, however, these incremental bits of the defense budget are of interest only to the Pentagon and the contractor supplying the item. The case described in this summary stems from one of these line items, part of a weapons system used by the Navy. (To protect the confidentiality of our interview respondents, we cannot name the weapon system.)

           The Navy for years had planned to phase out the use of certain ships and the weapons systems housed on those ships, but in 1998 decided to keep the ships in service for a few more years. The Navy decided to move ahead, however, with getting rid of the part of the weapons system made by a particular Northeastern defense contractor. That piece of equipment was used only on the ships that were being phased out, and the Navy decided to remove that equipment from the ships.

           The defense contractor knew that there was no hope that it could get the Navy to buy more of its product, since the ship itself was being phased out soon. Instead, the company began a lobbying effort to allow the equipment that the Navy already had purchased from the company to remain on the ships. Specifically, the defense contractor hoped to get a line inserted into the defense budget that instructed the Navy to not remove the company equipment from the ships, as long as the ships remain in service. Unless the Navy changed its decision, the removal would adversely affect company sales all over the world. Defense departments in foreign countries regard usage of a weapon system or vehicle by the American military as an endorsement of that unit's battle worthiness. There's no marketing campaign that can substitute effectively for actual use by the U.S. military.

           When a weapons system or base is to be terminated, there is always a counterattack by the affected company or town. There are usually two basic approaches that can be used: lobbying the Pentagon or lobbying the Congress. In this case, the defense contractor tried both. Its argument focused on the fact that the Navy itself has a policy requiring that parts of a weapons system must be kept together. The contractor argued that its equipment and the ship on which it was housed together formed a weapons system that should not be separated. Keeping the equipment, the contractor argued, would not cost any additional money and would ensure that Navy policy was followed.

           Aligned with this argument is that the ships in question are used to help with drug interdiction. Thus part of the lobbying pitch had nothing to do with military preparedness, but that the defense contractor's equipment was an important tool in the fight against drug smuggling.

           Lobbyists from the contractor quickly gave up on trying to change the Pentagon's mind and focused on legislators who represent the districts where the company was based and where the equipment is used. The strategy was to try to get the House Armed Services Appropriations Subcommittee to insert language forcing the Pentagon to keep the equipment in service. This is difficult to do as there is a predisposition by Congress to defer to the judgment of the military leaders. These efforts ultimately were successful in the House, where members tend to be more district-focused, but failed in the Senate. The final defense bill said nothing about the defense contractor's equipment, and the Pentagon was able to remove the equipment from its ships.