Warfare or welfare
By Joel Bleifuss
In These Times magazine, December 1995
A constitutional amendment to balance the budget has been
tentatively blessed by Clinton, and the 105th Congress may pass
it. But even if state legislatures show good sense and refuse
to ratify the amendment, both the Republican Congress and President
Bill Clinton are committed to striving for a balanced budget by
the year 2002.
The notion that the nation desperately needs to balance its
accounts has given Republicans in Congress and the "Republicrat"
in the White House the perfect pretext to attack an array of government
programs from OSHA to the EPA. Critics no longer have to pretend
that a given program is a waste of money; they need only click
their heels and repeat "the government cannot afford it."
A majority of Americans have caught the balanced bud get bug.
"Since Perot's 1992 campaign, the balanced budget has become
a measure of whether government is being sensible or not,"
says Robert Borosage of the Campaign for America's Future, an
organization founded in July to pro mote a people-centered national
economic agenda. On election night, Stan Greenberg, a Democratic
pollster with a populist bent, did a survey for the Campaign.
The results, says Borosage, were "wonderful news for progressives,"
with one exception: widespread support for a balanced budget.
According to Greenberg's poll, the public's top four concerns,
in descending order of importance, are protecting Medicare and
Social Security, balancing the budget, providing comprehensive
health care, and investing in education.
Given that reality, the time has come to change tactics: Stop
debating the idiocy of a balanced budget, accept it as a fait
accompli, and then organize and make elected leaders realize that
it is in their best interest to cut the Pentagon's budget. "For
progressives," says Borosage, "it makes more sense to
force a fight on priorities rather than the balanced budget itself
because there is no traction on that issue." In previous
budget battles, public interest groups were on the defensive,
each defending its own turf against cuts. "Progressives have
failed big-time inforcing the debate on priorities," says
Borosage. "We had a large coalition of mainstream domestic
groups, mayors and PTAs that was in favor of investing at home
after the Cold War. But after Clin ton was elected, his budget
numbers became the floor. Then groups started fighting each other
for their share of the pie, rather than combining their resources
to get the defense budget down."
This election year, Republicans in Congress suffered no political
fallout from their decision this summer to fork over $11 billion
more to the defense establishment than the Pentagon and the president
had requested. According to the Center for Defense Information,
a Washington, D.C.-based think tank of retired military officers,
that $11 billion could have funded i8 federal programs at their
current funding levels for an entire year, and $1 billion or more
would still have been left for deficit reduction. These federal
programs- which Congressional Republicans had targeted for elimination
or cuts-included Head Start ($3.4 billion); legal aid ($278 million);
school-to-work opportunities ($190 million); vocational and adult
education ($1.2 billion); the Corporation for Public Broadcasting
($27S million); the National Endowment for the Arts ($131 million);
the National Endowment for the Humanities ($129 million); summer
youth employment and training ($635 million); and the Arms Control
and Disarmament Agency ($46 million).
To meet their balanced budget goals, Congress and the president
have three options in the coming year: raise taxes, tamper with
entitlements, or again make cuts in discretionary spending (that
is, money not committed to entitlements such as Social Security
and Medicare, or to interest on the national debt).
So far the Pentagon budget is the only sector of discretionary
spending that has not gone under the knife, even though it is
rife with waste. Seven years after the collapse of the Soviet
Union, the United States continues to fund its military at 90
percent of Cold War levels. In real terms, military spending hasn't
declined much from average peace time Cold War levels. In the
1997 budget, the Pentagon is allocated about 53 percent of the
federal government's discretionary spending, or $265 billion dollars,
and the rest of the government is allocated the other 47 percent,
or $235 billion.
The 1997 Pentagon budget contains about $20 billion for Cold
War leftovers, including weapons systems for which there is no
longer any need. According to the Center for Defense Information,
canceling these costly programs and downsizing the nation's active-duty
military forces would allow the United States to reduce its military
spending from $265 to $200 billion.
In 1997, for example, the Pentagon will receive nearly $9
billion for six new aircraft programs. Over the life of these
programs, the armed forces will purchase some 6,000 planes and
helicopters at an estimated total cost of $400 billion. The Defense
Monitor, the newsletter of the Center for Defense Information,
puts it this way: "By pouring money into new military aircraft,
we are wasting billions of dollars in an arms race with ourselves."
One of these planes, the Joint Strike Fighter-which the Pentagon
says will cost $90 billion for a fleet of 3,000-is being built
to suit the needs of the Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps. Its
special features include radar evasion and both vertical and horizontal
take-off capabilities. According to the Center for Defense Information,
these specialized features make the Joint Strike Fighter "a
prime candidate for design and cost problems."
"I do not believe in conspiracies, but I do believe that
too many national security officials deliberately cultivate fear
of foreign threats in order to justify their role," writes
Retired Vice Admiral John Shanahan, the director of the Center
for Defense Information. "Without enemies, how could we justify
spending more than $250 billion every year on a worldwide military
"When I was on active duty, I ended up going through
three wars: World War II, Korea and Vietnam," Shanahan says.
"Now the conditions have changed, and military planners should
be flexible enough to adjust their buying habits and their force
structures." Planning in the Pentagon used to be "threat
based," Shanahan explains, meaning that U.S. military strength
was geared to meet the threats of real, known adversaries. But
as Cold War strategic planning has become outmoded, the Pentagon
has focused on hypothetical enemies instead, justifying its budgets
in terms of "capability-based" planning. "Capability
to do what?" Shanahan asks. "The Pentagon will tell
you that the United States should have the capability to dominate
the battle area, to go in with such horrendous force that no one
can withstand us. And what that becomes is a blank check for the
Pentagon to buy anything they need to dominate the battle area
even though there are no threats."
Caleb Rossiter, director of Demilitarization for Democracy,
a Washington, D.C.-based peace organization, has little faith
that rational voices will ever be heard. "Nothing seems to
diminish the ability of defense contractors to get the Pentagon
budget increased every year," he says. "The argument
that this is a safer world isn't working. We need to quit having
strategic debates and start explaining that this is a corporate
rip-off. That is the language we have to start using to explain
to the consumer why the military budgets are so high."
Critics of the bloated defense budget must go up against a
high-powered public relations apparatus that specializes in rationalizing
the irrational. This phalanx of flacks is financed by a military-industrial
complex that has no plans to let go of the quarter of a trillion
dollars it gets from tax payers each year. For example, between
1986 and 1988, when Pentagon spending was at its peak, defense
contractors paid former Sen. John Tower (R-TX) more than a million
dollars to convince his former colleagues to keep the money flowing.
Today, former Rep. Don Fuqua (D-FL) is lobbying his one-time colleagues
on behalf of the Aerospace Industries Association (AIA), which
represents about 50 military contractors. According to the Demilitarization
for Democracy, Fuqua helped AIA to "lobby successfully for
government subsidies that have cost the taxpayer roughly $150
million each year since 1992."
And money can buy more than lobbyists. According to the Center
for Responsive Politics, PACs representing the defense and aerospace
industries contributed $9.1 million to candidates for federal
office in this year's election cycle- $6.3 million to Republicans
and $2.8 million to Democrats.
While the end of the Cold War has not significantly altered
military spending, funding for organizations working on peace
and national security issues has dropped sharply. "Foundations
aren't funding efforts to reduce military spending," says
Martin Calhoun, a budget analyst at the Center for Defense Information.
"The Military Spending Working Group, a unified front of
arms control organizations, tried to get major foundations to
back this unified effort to reduce military spending, and not
one foundation would do this."
John Pike of the Federation of American Scientists was one
of the founders of the Military Spending Working Group, which
has languished without a paid staff due to lack of funds. "The
amount of money the philanthropic community is giving to the peace
issue is roughly $10 million, while 10 years ago it was about
$100 million," he says. "To have a significant impact
on military spending, you are going to have to spend millions
of dollars a year, which is a fraction of the amount of money
that foundations are now investing in peace and security. Right
now, the advertising budget on a single weapons system equals
the entire annual budget for a whole organization."
In the absence of significant public pressure, Congress will
likely vote to protect defense spending and slash social programs
further. In 1997, the Defense Department will undergo a congressionally
mandated quadrennial review. Calhoun, however, is not confident
that the review will lead to budgetary reforms. "I fear the
military will assume that they will have X amount of money to
spend and then cost out what they can afford, when they should
be doing it the other way around-determining their needs and then
costing out the forces to meet those needs," he says.
Pike is equally pessimistic. "The squeaky wheel gets
the grease, and right now it is the military-industrial complex
that is squeaking," he says. "And since the various
constituencies that are adversely affected by this have been unable
to hang together, they are hanging separately;" As the noose
gets ready to tighten around social programs in 1997, is anybody
pressuring members of Congress to take a stand?
Deborah Walden is director of policy and programs at Women's
Action for New Directions (WAND), a coalition of 120 national
women's organizations representing 6 million women nationwide.
"Based on what we have heard from members of Congress, it
is going to take a lot of people in their districts or in their
states saying that the Pentagon needs to be cut before Congress
will take it up," says Walden, who is in touch with members
of the Progressive Caucus in Congress. "Defense is one of
these issues that the more people know about how much is being
spent on it in relation to other areas, the more likely they are
to say yes, it can be cut."
In a survey last July, the Program on International Policy
and Attitudes at the University of Maryland asked people to allocate
the discretionary part of the budget as they deemed fit. After
being informed about the relative sizes of the budgets for social
programs and the military, 80 percent of respondents were in favor
of dramatically cutting back Pentagon spending. "As Americans
get more information about the actual level of defense spending,"
the study concluded, "the majority shifts from wanting modest
cuts to wanting deep cuts."
WAND has been trying to educate women about the fact that
military spending accounts for more than half of the government's
discretionary budget, while programs for women and children have
been the targets of most of the cuts. The organization is preparing
a package of fact sheets that will be sent across the country
to 10,000 women leaders. The motto of these women: "Let us
slice the pie!"
Ice cream baron Ben Cohen is also trying to sell Americans
on the idea that the Pentagon needs to be put on a strict diet.
On June 23, Cohen took out a full-page ad in the New York Times
to announce the formation of Business Leaders for Sensible Priorities,
He describes the new organization as "a group of business
people working to increase spending for social programs by redirecting
the military budget." So far the group has attracted to its
steering committee business leaders such as Richard Foos of Rhino
Records and Alan Hassenfeld, CEO of Hasbro Inc., the maker of
Cohen's group plans to test-market the case for cutting the
Pentagon budget in a yet-to-be-disclosed metropolitan area. "If
the public understood what was really going on, they would be
looking to cut the military budget tremendously," says Cohen.
"We are going to start to do some media advertising, host
special events and work with local grass-roots groups." The
group's goal is to make all Americans familiar with information
contained on two charts: One, a bar graph, compares the military
expenditures of the United States, our allies and our potential
adversaries. The other, a pie chart, shows how the U.S discretionary
budget is divvied up. "The target audience for organizing
has gone way beyond the usual peace and conversion suspects,"
explains Cohen. "We are looking for much more support nationwide."
Walden is confident that the women WAND reaches will support
big cuts in the Pentagon. "During the Cold War, the threat
of nuclear annihilation gave us something to rally around,"
Walden says. "Now as we hear more about balancing the budget,
it is going to take more and more people demanding that military
spending be put on the table. We have to face the facts of a new
age. The Cold War is over, and we should use some of those funds
for human and environmental needs."