There’s a battle brewing for the future of national security spending.
On one side, there’s a growing bipartisan consensus that the coronavirus has fundamentally changed the way we should think about national security. Ben Rhodes, former deputy national security adviser in the Obama White House, recently argued in The Atlantic that we have to rethink the orientation and priorities of our government, and “it makes no sense that the Pentagon budget is 13 times larger than the entire international-affairs budget, which funds the State Department, USAID, and global programs at other agencies.”
Kori Schake, the director of foreign and defense policy studies at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, said the bottom line is that “we’re going to see enormous downward pressure on defense spending because of other urgent American national needs like health care.”
Even conservative commentators like Max Boot, who less than two years ago wrote, “the United States is losing the ability to defend itself,” recently wrote that “Instead of simply pouring more money into the Pentagon, we need to develop new capacities to combat foreign disinformation, transition away from carbon fuels and stop the spread of pandemics.”
On the other side, despite this support from across the political spectrum to reduce the Pentagon’s budget and focus more on non-military threats to national security—an argument the Center for International Policy’s Sustainable Defense Task Force made long before the coronavirus pandemic—there stands one of the most powerful players in American politics: the military-industrial complex.
If history is any indication, the military-industrial complex isn’t going down without a fight, nor is the Pentagon budget. Through their droves of lobbyists, the revolving door between the Pentagon, contractors, and Congress, and the promise of providing jobs to every Congressional district, Pentagon contractors have kept the defense budget artificially inflated for years at the expense of funding for things like the Centers for Disease Control and other agencies that can help fight disease outbreaks. And, in this new coronavirus era, they’re using the same playbook once again.
The power of the military-industrial complex to keep the defense budget artificially high has perhaps never been more apparent than in the last nine years when the Pentagon budget was under perpetual threat of being reduced after passage of the Budget Control Act in 2011 (BCA). While Pentagon contractors decry the damage wreaked by the BCA, their lobbyists and advocates omit one key fact: The defense budget has actually increased under the BCA to roughly $750 billion per year, well above the levels reached during the Vietnam or Korean Wars.
After the BCA was enacted, military spending was to be capped at an ample $5.4 trillion over 10 years, but over that same time period the US actually spent $5.7 trillion on the military. This was largely because Congress and presidents Obama and Trump consistently agreed to lift the caps on defense spending in addition to using the Overseas Contingency Operations account—which has been described as a slush fund—to dodge the spending caps.
The arms lobby is well-positioned to exert influence over Pentagon spending going forward. Hundreds of former senior government officials—645 in 2018 alone, according to the Project on Government Oversight—have gone through the “revolving door’ to work for the defense industry as lobbyists, executives, consultants, or board members. This gives them an inside track on debates over budget priorities. And, the revolving door swings both ways. The last three secretaries of defense have been a former board member of General Dynamics, a former Boeing executive, and the former chief lobbyist for Raytheon, respectively. Most importantly of all, President Trump has been the greatest champion of the arms industry, touting (and exaggerating) the number of jobs created by arms sales to countries like Saudi Arabia.
This massive influence operation has already led to early wins for the arms makers in the coronavirus era. Boeing successfully pushed for billions in aid to the arms industry in the $2 trillion stimulus bill, and arms industry lobbyists successfully pushed to get weapons makers deemed “essential” businesses during the coronavirus pandemic.
While the battle to defeat this pandemic rages, the battle to defeat the next one has already begun, and so far, arms industry lobbyists are winning. They’re making sure that Pentagon contractors continue to thrive, even as much more pressing priorities than bomb making demand our attention. Instead of protecting contractor profits, Congress must choose to protect the American people from the very real threats that are killing thousands of Americans as we speak.