The Panhandle congressman has been an unwavering hawk and a champion for bigger war budgets.
Mac Thornberry, a Panhandle Republican representing Texas’ 13th Congressional District, announced on Monday that he will not run for reelection. That makes him the sixth House Republican from the state to announce their retirement, a collective scramble for the exits that has become known as Texodus.
Electorally speaking, his retirement isn’t as big of a loss for Republicans as, say, Will Hurd’s. Thornberry’s district is one of the reddest in the country and the GOP should have no problem winning it again. But it is a big blow to the hawkish wing of the party, to the defense contractor industry, and to the military industrial complex at large.
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For four years, Thornberry, the longest serving member of the Texas congressional delegation, chaired the House Armed Services Committee, which is in charge of funding and oversight of the Pentagon and U.S. military. When Republicans lost the House in 2018, he lost his post. He was also set to be term-limited out of his position as the ranking Republican on the committee in 2021.
“Mac Thornberry was an extremely polished, articulate hawk who consistently overstated the risks to the United States and called for much more Pentagon spending than is needed to protect the country,” William Hartung, director of the Arms and Security Project at the Center for International Policy, told the Observer. “He often spoke of a ‘readiness crisis’ as a reason to boost the Pentagon’s budget, even though the department has been getting some of its highest levels of spending since World War II in recent years—far more than it received in the Korean or Vietnam Wars, or at the height of the Reagan buildup of the 1980s.”
As Armed Services Chair during Trump’s first two years in office, Thornberry was instrumental in getting the president to abandon his call to cut defense spending and instead approve a dramatic increase of the military budget by $165 billion over two years. “Our top priority is the troops,” he wrote in an op-ed with his Senate committee counterpart. “Any cut in the defense budget would be a senseless step backward.”
In addition to jacking up military spending, Thornberry’s marquee priority while serving as committee chair was to overhaul the weapons acquisition process for the military in 2015. His critics warned that this would dramatically reduce the Pentagon’s ability to provide oversight and audits in the contracting process and could give defense contractors far more leeway to charge excessive prices on the backs of the taxpayer. Mandy Smithberger, director of the Straus Military Reform Project at the Project on Government Oversight, called the reforms “overly friendly to the industry and costly to taxpayers.”
As Politico reported at the time, the acquisition reform bill mirrored several provisions that the defense industry was lobbying for, including plans to weaken the Pentagon’s internal watchdog mechanisms and lowest-bidder requirements. A lobbyist for the National Defense Industry Association boasted that “[t]here were, literally, 10 provisions … that had some kind of direct or indirect lineage from our recommendation. They were tightly aligned and in some cases were word-for-word adaptations.”
Thornberry denied that his bill was handwritten by defense industry lobbyists but acknowledged that it was reflective of their ideas. “Obviously if you want to improve a system, you’ve got to get the viewpoint of the people who work in the system every day, and that in this case includes the industry,” he told Politico.
A major provision in the bill, pushed for by the powerful defense contractor Honeywell, was to further loosen the standards for contractors to be able to label their products as “commercial,” which came with far less pricing oversight. Watchdogs warned that the provision could lock the government into playing absurdly high costs, and also expanded loopholes making it more difficult for Pentagon auditors to claw back overcharges in contracts. “If history is any guide, the policy changes … will force the [DOD] and taxpayers to eat the costs of the new ‘efficiencies,’” the Project on Government Oversight (POGO) warned at the time.
“Congressman Thornberry’s proposals were designed to make the Pentagon’s acquisition system less bureaucratic and more responsive to the warfighter,” a spokesman for House Armed Service Committee Republicans said in a statement. “Years after those reforms were passed, I am not aware of any evidence that POGO’s concerns were warranted.”
In the fall of 2018, the Pentagon was on the verge of enacting a rule to limit the amount of upfront money it provides to contractors from 80 percent to 50 percent while tying cash flow to performance measures, and putting restrictions on companies convicted of fraud. Thornberry, in tandem with the defense industry lobby, led the push against the rule and the Department of Defense quickly backed down. As Thornberry saw it, the Pentagon rule would have devastated contractors’ ability to invest in research and development and innovation needed for the rapid military build-up that he was fighting for.
This year, Democrats tried to crack down on defense contractors’ rampant price “gouging” in the wake of reports that a contractor called TransDigm supplied single parts to the Pentagon at prices marked up as high as 4,451 percent. In response to their proposal to give auditors greater authority to demand contractor disclosure of pricing data, Thornberry demurred. He didn’t like the idea of responding to one “bad actor” with “a new law, a new regulation that puts additional requirements on everybody.” The proposal was successfully added as an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act, which Thornberry ultimately voted against because he didn’t think it included enough money.
Like most committee chairs, Thornberry maintained close connections to the industry he was charged with overseeing. Over the course of his career, Thornberry raked in more than $1.6 million from the defense industry, including hundreds of thousands from top weapons manufacturers like Lockheed Martin, Boeing, Raytheon, and Textron, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
Those corporations all have major operations in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, which is home to a booming defense and aerospace manufacturing sector. Textron’s subsidiary Bell and the aircraft giant Boeing have operations in Amarillo, which is the heart of Thornberry’s district. Last year, the two companies signed a $4.2 billion contract to build dozens of V-22 Ospreys, with most of the work being done in Fort Worth and some in Amarillo. With Thornberry on his way out, proponents of the military industrial complex will have to find a new champion in Texas.
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