The aerospace industry is ramping up its congressional lobbying efforts to the highest levels ever this year. Congressional analysts say this effort, while part of a trend toward greater activity among lobbies in general, is fueled by several factors: Congressional elections are being held this year; the Gramm-Rudman deficit-reduction law is throwing uncertainty into the future course of defense budgets; and lawmakers are trying to tighten down on what they see as abusive military procurement practices.
Defense contractors ``know they've entered the era of Gramm-Rudman and diminished expectations,'' says a staff member of the Senate Armed Services Committee who is in regular contact with defense contractors and their lobbyists. ``The pie isn't going to get any bigger, so they're going to have to fight if they want to see their business increase.''
The nation's biggest defense contractors have doubled their campaign contributions since President Reagan was elected in 1980. According to Federal Election Commission records, the top 20 defense contractors poured $3.6 million into the 1984 campaigns. Despite the fact that 1986 offers no presidential election, analysts expect this year's political donations to be higher.
Does that money buy influence? With rare exceptions, no, say analysts, congressional staff members, and lawmakers. But it does provide access -- the assurance that a lawmaker will at least take the time to hear the donor's side of an issue. Thus, political-action committee money from aerospace companies tends to be particularly invested in the campaigns of lawmakers who sit on committees such as the armed-services and defense-appropriations committees in House and Senate.
Most analysts agree that the aerospace industry's strongest lobbying suit lies in the practice of some companies that spread work on major projects among dozens of suppliers in many different states. That way, major projects often translate into jobs in many congressional districts.
In this way, aerospace lobbyists ``can pull a lot of muscle when they need to,'' says Sen. Nancy Kassebaum (R) of Kansas, chairman of the Subcommittee on Aviation of the Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation.
In the world of Washington lobbies, the aerospace industry has been doing rather nicely. It is wealthy and growing. In stark contrast to the conspicuous arm-twisting that some interests indulge in, aerospace lobbyists blanket the Hill with solicitous discretion.
Perhaps the relative gentility of aerospace lobbyists might not be possible were it not for President Reagan's military buildup, which has been a bonanza for defense contractors.
His Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), popularly known as ``star wars,'' plans to build a space station and the space-plane project promise to help keep federal aerospace spending from running dry.
Even Gramm-Rudman does not immediately threaten key projects. To meet the law's deficit targets, congressional budgeteers have proposed freezing defense spending, thus effectively capping the Reagan-era defense boom. But the Pentagon already has a backlog of some $280 billion in unspent and unallocated funds -- enough to cushion the impact of budget cuts for several years.
Yet there are signs that halcyon days for defense contractors are numbered. Tighter defense budgets have already begun to squeeze programs such as the C-17 cargo plane and the T-46 trainer. This has led to some ferocious squabbling among companies competing for the same slice of a shrinking pie.
``As the money gets tighter and some of the opportunities begin to fade, we will increasingly see the gloves come off,'' says the chief Washington lobbyist for a large industry group. ``It's not that [industry lobbyists] roll over for each other -- they don't -- it's just that they may become less circumspect about sweeping the other guys legs out from under him.''
In addition tighter defense budgets, stories of exhorbitantly priced hammers, toilet seats, and coffee pots reinforced a general perception that an unwise Pentagon was being routinely bilked by unscrupulous contractors.
Such incidents have not only helped spawn skepticism about defense procurement practices in Congress, but they have spawned legislation designed to curb opportunities for excess as well. Lawmakers are crafting bills that would place strict conditions on the hiring of former Pentagon employees by military contractors and establish stronger congressional oversight of Pentagon purchasing.
``I think the aerospace lobby today has to be a little careful [because of] all the questions that have been raised,'' Senator Kassebaum says. With the advent of Gramm-Rudman, she says, ``people have put on their green eyeshades.''