Reducing Influence Peddling in Government Contracting
by Gary Therkildsen and Gary D. Bass, OMB Watch
Simultaneously published April 27, 2011 at Truthout
Today, the Unites States Air Force relies on a fleet of aerial refueling tankers – overwhelmingly comprised of the jet-powered, Eisenhower-era KC-135 Stratotanker – to project power around the world. The Air Force has consistently evaluated the aircraft to be flight-worthy until 2040, in spite of its age.
A decade ago, while suffering through the tumultuous financial upheavals caused by the 9/11 terrorist attacks, defense contractor Boeing Co., with the support of the Air Force, convinced the Pentagon to begin replacing its refueling fleet early. The plan was for the DoD to lease a bundle of Boeing's commercial jets redesigned as tankers, financially aiding the defense contractor along the way.
Then, a contracting scandal involving improper communications between the government and Boeing blew up, throwing the lease into turmoil. In fact, the fallout of the scandal so immensely complicated the Air Force's later competitions to find a tanker replacement that the situation has only just recently ended, with Boeing winning one of the largest defense contracts ever.
The original tanker lease, which, at the time, represented a very lucrative contract, with an initial estimated worth of $20 billion and the potential for tens of billions of dollars in additional sales, generated a bevy of lobbying activity, both legal and illegal. Because of weak, underenforced lobbying transparency rules, however, most of the lobbying activity - along with any relevant understanding of its impact on the government's decision-making process - has been lost to unnoted conversations or hidden in obscure lobbying records.
For these reasons, the Boeing tanker lease presents an apt case study of Washington's broken lobbying disclosure laws and demonstrates the need for transparency reforms to help counter the pernicious power of influence peddling on government actions.