Yesterday, the House of Representatives rejected an amendment from Progressive Caucus Co-Chair Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Wis.) to cut the Pentagon’s budget by 10 percent on a vote of 324-93. While Republicans voted in lockstep against the amendment, the Democrats were split, with 92 voting for the amendment and 139 voting against it.
At $740.5 billion, the military budget authorization that was passed by the House after the amendment was rejected will almost certainly be more than half of all 2021 discretionary federal spending and will dwarf amounts spent on functions like healthcare, housing, and education. If the House level is adopted after the Senate passes its version and any differences are resolved, 2021 will be the sixth year in a row that the Pentagon’s budget will be increased by Congress.
The amendment would have applied a 10% reduction to all Pentagon accounts and funds besides those authorized for the Defense Health program, military personnel, and individuals appointed to the civil services.
The Democrats who voted against reducing the Defense budget do not make up an obvious grouping. They span the ideological spectrum of House Democrats and include freshman members as well as leadership members who have been in office for decades. But by reviewing campaign contributions, a pattern emerges: Democrats who voted against the amendment tend to have received far more campaign funding from defense industry interests.
On average, the Democrats who voted against the amendment have received $29,731 in contributions from the defense industry since January 2019, while Democrats voting for the amendment have received, on average, $8,800 from the industry during that period, according to a Sludge analysis of data from the Center for Responsive Politics.
The contributions factored in this analysis came from PACs and employees of contractors like Lockheed Martin, Raytheon, and BAE Systems that receive tens of billions worth of contracts from the Defense Department each year. The analysis does not count contributions to leadership PACs, joint fundraising committees, or party groups, nor does it include contributions from defense lobbyists at outside firms or contributions to independent political spending groups.
Of the top 50 recipients of 2019-20 defense industry funds among House Democrats, only eight voted for the Pocan amendment. The top 17 recipients all voted against it.
“There’s no doubt that the massively wealthy and influential defense—or, more accurately, warmaking—industry holds considerable sway over Congress,” said Michael Galant, senior communications associate at Win Without War. “Many in Congress fail to hold the military-industrial complex accountable because they have weapons manufacturers or military bases in their districts. Despite the fact that study after study have shown that the same amount of taxpayer dollars can create more jobs in education or green infrastructure than in defense contracting, they have been made to think that a vote to cut the Pentagon budget is a vote against constituent jobs.”
In a May letter to the leaders of the Armed Services Committee, Pocan and members of the Progressive Caucus called for defense cuts in light of the coronavirus pandemic.
“Year after year, we see taxpayer dollars line the pocket of defense contractors instead of supporting the American public,” Pocan said. “The enemy we’re fighting right now is COVID-19, so our sole focus should be on expanding testing, tracing and treatment, funding towards vaccine development, and relief for the American people. Increasing defense spending now would be a slap in the face to the families of over 90,000 Americans that have died from this virus.”
While the Pocan amendment did not pass, longtime Pentagon watcher William Hartung, director of the Arms and Security Project at the Center for International Policy, described it as the first time in years that significant cuts to defense spending received a vote in Congress. After retaking the House in the 2018 midterms, House Democrats’ April 2019 proposal was to increase military spending by 2.6%, and since the beginning of the Trump administration defense spending is up almost 20%.
“Adjusted for inflation, the $740 billion proposal is well over $100 billion more than expenditures at the high point of the Reagan buildup of the 1980s,” Hartung wrote in February. But even this lofty share—taking up 53% of the federal discretionary budget—falls short of capturing the real extent of military spending. Counting all ten major sources of defense spending, Hartung found last year in a report co-authored with Mandy Smithberger, the director of the Straus Military Reform Project at the Project On Government Oversight (POGO), the “final annual tally for war, preparations for war, and the impact of war comes to more than $1.25 trillion, more than double the Pentagon’s base budget.”
The Senate version of the amendment, sponsored by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), would divert defense dollars to a federal grant program to fund health care, housing, childcare and education for cities experiencing a poverty rate of 25% or more. A Data for Progress poll conducted last week found that 56% of likely voters support cutting the military budget by 10% to pay for priorities like the coronavirus response, healthcare, and poverty reduction. The poll’s majority includes half of Republicans, though as researcher Ashik Siddique with the National Priorities Project points out, no congressional Republicans cast a vote in favor of re-allocating and reinvesting Pentagon funding in more economically-productive sectors like education.
Current U.S. Secretary of Defense Mark Esper is a former lobbyist at Raytheon, which over the past two election cycles spent $6.4 million on campaign contributions and $20 million on federal lobbying.
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