Washington — A swirling dogfight in Pentagon airspace illustrates just how vigorous - and sometimes questionable - the lobbying over favored weapons can become.
The General Accounting Office (GAO) reports that federal law may have been violated in the recent tussle over whether to buy the Lockheed C-5B or Boeing 747 for the military's big transport. The congressional watchdog charges collusion between the Pentagon and defense contractors in pushing for their favorite (the C-5B), and has referred the matter to the US Justice Department for possible prosecution.
Who pays for all this? Under federal law, certain lobbying efforts can be charged to Uncle Sam as part of a defense contract. The GAO says that in the recent C-5B/747 flap, the federal government (that is, taxpayers) could be nicked more than a quarter of a million dollars in such funds if specific action to block it is not taken by the secretary of defense or Congress.
Also, the GAO reports, the Pentagon probably exceeded its allowed spending for ''legislative liaison'' (read that lobbying) in the fiscal year just ended by as much as $1.6 million. Not included here is the cost of the time spent by Air Force personnel in pushing for the C-5B.
There are legions of lobbyists working for defense contractors in Washington, and their clout is well known. But legislative liaison conducted by the Pentagon is also considerable. There are 38 full-time lobbyists in the office of the assistant secretary of defense for legislative affairs. When the numbers from the individual services are added in, the total reaches about 300.
The stakes are extremely high in the battles over weapons procurement. In the case of the military transport, $10 billion in business is involved.
In this case, the Senate last spring voted down the C-5B in favor of buying used 747s. This made the lawmakers from the State of Washington very happy because Boeing makes the 747 there. But it rankled the Pentagon, not to mention the legislators from Georgia (where the rival C-5B is to be built).
According to the GAO, the Air Force, together with Pentagon civilians, Lockheed officials, and some subcontractors, mounted an unusually high-pressured lobbying campaign in favor of the C-5B. This included nearly daily meetings among the principals at the Pentagon, a flurry of congressional ''dear colleague'' letters generated in the Pentagon, and a Lockheed computer to monitor the lobbying battlefield. Printouts showed that more than 500 visits to Capitol Hill were to be made by employees of Lockheed.
In essence, the GAO charge is that ''Air Force and OSD (Office of the Secretary of Defense) officials violated federal antilobbying laws by using contractors to do things that they could not do themselves.''
''Also,'' the GAO finds, ''the Defense Department may have exceeded the limitation on the funds it can spend on legislative liaison activities and inappropriately classified - as training, for example - the cost of activities that were obviously for legislative liaison.''
Lockheed and Pentagon officials, in testimony several weeks ago before the House Armed Services investigations subcommittee, denied any wrongdoing and continued to maintain their innocence. One senior Air Force official told GAO investigators that the push for the C-5B was ''democracy in action.''
In a sharp reaction, the Pentagon charges that the GAO report contains ''numerous factual mistakes and erroneous interpretations of federal statutes.''
Pentagon lobbyists say it is their responsibility to correct any ''misinformation'' upon which lawmakers may be basing their decisions to procure weapons.
''We have an absolute responsibility to contact members who are moving on the basis of false information,'' said one top Defense Department official.
In the case of buying new transport aircraft, the Senate reversed itself and went along with the House in ordering the C-5B.
It is the judgment of the GAO that federal law prohibits the Pentagon or the services from mounting a grass-roots lobbying campaign by rousing a battalion of contractors and their supporters.
In its report, the GAO recommends new legislation spelling out clearer lobbying guidelines for federal contractors as well as for government agencies that advocate their interests on Capitol Hill.