If there was any doubt that SpaceX is working behind the curtain to pull strings on Capitol Hill, it’s all but been erased. The sudden groundswell of support in Washington for SpaceX’s policy objectives essentially confirms the effectiveness of Elon Musk’s lobbying campaign. But through the company’s recent political maneuver—purportedly calling in a favor from House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam Smith—SpaceX may have overplayed their hand. If Chairman Smith’s policy positions can be affected by the influence of private firms, is he properly situated as the head of oversight for the Armed Forces?
Over the past few years, Chairman Smith’s cozy relationship with SpaceX has been well documented. In Smith’s 2016 election, SpaceX was the third largest contributor to his campaign, supplying the Representative with an impressive $11,000 in funds. But the gravy train didn’t stop there. The following election cycle, SpaceX stepped up its game, nearly doubling its prior campaign contributions to the soon-to-be Chairman of the House Armed Services Committee. Throughout the 2018 race, SpaceX contributed a whopping $20,400 to Smith’s campaign. That’s certainly no small fee for Musk’s independent aerospace contracting firm.
There’s solid evidence to suggest that SpaceX’s political expenditures are strategically placed. Out of all the recipients of SpaceX’s 2018 political contributions, Adam Smith ranked as the second-highest beneficiary. SpaceX’s contributions to the future Chairman of the Armed Services Committee were only outpaced by those to Senator Dianne Feinstein, which totaled $26,600. The Senator is a seasoned politician from California and a member of the Select Committee on Intelligence—a committee with oversight responsibility for various military agencies. From SpaceX’s perspective, it makes sense to invest in individuals with the power to influence the aerospace industry. As such, Rep. Adam Smith and Sen. Dianne Feinstein were both prime targets.
It’s no surprise, then, that Smith has been quite laudatory towards SpaceX. He knows on which side his bread is buttered. In December 2018, the freshly-anointed Chairman came out swinging, sniping at SpaceX’s top competitor—the United Launch Alliance—for using Russian-made engines in their rockets. He then commended SpaceX for defying industry expectations, fostering competition, and proving people wrong. For the most part, though, Smith’s adulation for the company was limited to rhetoric, rather than outright political advocacy. But recently, that has changed.
In October 2018, SpaceX missed out on obtaining a critically-important contract from the Launch Service Agreement (LSA), the Air Force’s signature space initiative. As a result, Musk’s aerospace company launched a political offensive, fully engaging its lobbying efforts against the Air Force’s decision to exclude SpaceX. And Chairman Smith, a dutiful defender of SpaceX, stepped his advocacy up a notch.
Like clockwork, on March 28, 2019, Smith penned a letter to the Secretary of the Air Force, expressing his serious concern over the progress of the Launch Service Agreement. In the letter, Smith disparaged the Air Force’s seeming lack of fairness in its selection process and called on the military to conduct an “independent review” of the Air Force’s approach to the LSA.
While not mentioning SpaceX by name, Smith’s arguments mirrored those of Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who has also risen to SpaceX’s defense. A month prior, Feinstein likewise wrote a letter to the Air Force Secretary, insisting that their decision to exclude SpaceX from the LSA put the company at a competitive disadvantage. Interestingly, she too called for an independent review of the Air Force’s space launch procurement strategy.
An odd “coincidence” indeed.
Of course, the situation could be entirely incidental. But to believe that, you would also have to accept that the two elected representatives most funded by SpaceX just happened to espouse remarkably similar arguments against the LSA, immediately following the company’s lobbying push to undermine the Air Force’s decision-making. That’s an enormous stretch, especially in politics.
In life, the simplest explanation is usually the right one. In this instance, it may simply be the case that Chairman Smith is taking his political cues from SpaceX’s policy objectives. And that doesn’t bode well for the state of the Armed Services Committee.
If Rep. Smith’s actions are indeed what they appear to be, then throughout the LSA process, he has been providing cover for SpaceX, cloaking their talking points in the authority of his appointed position. In doing so, the Congressman shows little regard for the potential national security concerns his solutions would create. As 28 of his colleagues in Congress have pointed out, Smith’s desire for greater “fairness” in the Air Force’s selection process would only weaken the Air Force’s performance requirements, “particularly for our nation’s most sensitive missions.” In his vigor to support the hand that feeds him, Chairman Smith may very well be compromising America’s national security.
As the Chair of the Committee, Smith is chiefly responsible for both funding and oversight of defense policy; he is the watchman guarding against misappropriation and malfeasance in the Department of Defense. But if Smith can be influenced by outside actors like SpaceX, should his judgment be trusted? Unfortunately, the answer is no.