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Universities, Desperate to Fight ‘Sequestration’ of Research Funds, Embrace a Corporate Ally

Washington — Back in 2011, as Republicans in the House of Representatives threatened to force a default on government debt in order to make President Obama accept deep budget cuts, the Northrop Grumman Corporation was showering them with campaign donations.

The defense contractor and its employees handed out $3.4-million in 2011, mostly to Republicans. Its leading beneficiary in Congress was Rep. Howard P. (Buck) McKeon of California, part of the Republican majority that blocked a debt-ceiling extension and then voted for a “sequestration” measure threatening deep, across-the-board budget cuts.

On Monday, in a sign of how anxious universities have become about the threat of sequestration, the heads of two major university groups joined the head of Northrop Grumman in pleading with Congress to reconsider.

The pending cuts in areas affecting education, including scientific research, “would haunt us for many, many years” if they are enacted, Wesley G. Bush, chief executive officer and president of Northrop Grumman, told a briefing of military and education lobbyists.

The sequestration measure was intentionally created as a heavy-handed instrument, with the intent of forcing a compromise on the federal budget, after House Republicans refused in 2011 to approve a routine expansion of the federal borrowing limit.

If sequestration takes effect, it would mean nearly $1-trillion in across-the-board budget cuts over the next decade. The deep cuts would hit both domestic programs, which are usually the concern of Democrats, and military spending, traditionally protected by Republicans.

The cuts were due to take effect on January 2, but Congress, in a hint of potential compromise just a day ahead of time, extended the deadline to March 1. But since then, both parties have spoken in increasingly pessimistic terms about the likelihood of a solution that will avert the sequestration of funds starting next month.

The presidents of the Association of American Universities, Hunter R. Rawlings, and the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities, M. Peter McPherson, acknowledged their desperation as they sat alongside Mr. Bush on Monday at the National Press Club.

Mr. Rawlings said that, as a former professor of classics, he never anticipated the day he would be sitting beside the chairman of a major defense contractor. But he said he realized that both he and Mr. Bush, who received some $26-million in compensation in 2011, had an interest in federally sponsored scientific research, which would be cut by about $90-billion under sequestration.

“So frankly this makes a whole lot of sense,” Mr. Rawlings said, “because we’re trying to do the same thing.”

Mr. McPherson said universities and defense contractors had not been overt opponents in the past, but had rarely acted in a united way. In this case, however, “we all see the urgent need and problem that we have before us.”

Even before the sequestration process begins, universities are being affected by a tighter federal budget, Mr. Rawlings said. The University of California has already seen a 20-percent drop, year over year, in the amount of federal grant money its faculty members are receiving, he said.

Northrop Grumman’s $3.4-million in campaign donations in 2011, as tallied by the Center for Responsive Politics, does not pre-empt it from criticizing the wisdom of sequestration, said a company spokesman, Brandon R. Belote.

Under its four-point criteria for allocating its political contributions, Mr. Belote said Northrop Grumman supports members of Congress who request it and serve in leadership positions, serve on committees affecting the military, or live in districts with company facilities. The position of lawmakers on sequestration, or any other political issue, was not among the criteria.

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