The Insanity Defense

Need a definition for Washington? Try institutional insanity.

Multinational Monitor, January/February 1999


Consider this: The United States, the world's only remaining military superpower, is about to embark on a military buildup unmatched since the peak of the Reagan-era Cold War.

President Clinton has proposed a boost in the defense budget of $ 112 billion over six years-on top of the already monstrous $265 billion of federal money spent annually on the military. The weapons procurement budget alone is scheduled to grow 50 percent in the next half decade. And Congressional Republicans, frothing at the mouth, are insisting on an even greater jump in military spending.

What's happened, you might ask: Was there a coup in Russia? Has the Cold War resumed?

Uh, no. It is not the Empire that's struck again, it's the military-industrial complex.

During the Clinton presidency, the U.S. defense industry -with encouragement and subsidies from the Pentagon- has undergone an ear-splitting consolidation that has left but three major contractors: Lockheed Martin, Boeing and Raytheon. Today's Lockheed Martin is the product of the merger of Lockheed, Martin Marietta, Loral and parts of General Dynamics. Boeing leaped to the top tier of the contractor pack with its acquisition of McDonnell Douglas. Raytheon gobbled up Hughes.

With manufacturing facilities spread across the United States, these three companies now have enormous political influence-they can promise that new military contracts will mean jobs in the districts of hundreds of members of Congress, and in nearly every state. They supplement this structural power with huge campaign contributions-more than $8.5 million in the 1997-1998 electoral cycle, according to the Center for Responsive Politics-and even bigger lobbying investments-nearly $50 million in 1997 alone, according to the Center. To complete the package, the industry invests in a variety of hawkish policy institutes and front groups, all of which churn reports, issue alerts, fact-sheets, congressional testimony and op-eds on the critical need for more, and more, and more defense spending.

Combined with the powerful lobby from the Pentagon and its Chicken-Little worries about shortcomings in U.S. military "readiness" and the ability of the United States to fight two major wars simultaneously, the defense contractors have successfully positioned themselves to reap the benefits of a new explosion in military spending.

As William Hartung of the World Policy Institute notes in a recent report, "Military Industrial Complex Revisited," nothing indicates the power of the contractor lobby more than its ability to extract more money from Congress for weapons purchases than the Pentagon itself has requested.

Hartung highlights the example of the C-130 transport plane, which is made by Lockheed Martin just outside of the congressional district of former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich. In the last 20 years, the U.S. Air Force has asked for five C-130s, but Congress has funded 256. "This ratio of 50 planes purchased for every one requested by the Pentagon may well be a record in the annals of pork barrel politics," Hartung writes. The C-130s go for about $75 million a piece.

Even more remarkable, perhaps, is the "Star Wars" program. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, the program's original mission no longer exists. Although the Pentagon has poured $55 billion into the program in a decade and a half, as Hartung notes, it has been a miserable failure in technical terms. Undeterred, the Congressional leadership added an extra $1 billion in Star Wars funding in the 1999 federal budget. Chalk up another victory for Lockheed and Boeing.

But nothing compares to the bonanza that the defense sector is about to reap. Without even the bogeyman of a perceived Soviet threat and in a time of rigid adherence to budget austerity, the weapons makers and their allies are about to usher in a new era of military profligacy and industrial waste.

With the U.S. infrastructure crumbling, its Medicare system imperiled, child poverty at unconscionable levels in a time of unparalleled economic expansion and global warming threatening the well-being of the entire planet, a remotely sensible version of "national security" would prioritize these concerns over maintaining the military budget at current levels, let alone increasing it.

Unfortunately, the lobbies for public works, the sick and aged, the poor and the environment cannot match the influence of the weapons makers. Their urgings that the federal government invest to address real problems that trouble the entire society, or at least large segments of it, are dismissed as "unreasonable."

In Washington, where things are upside down, it is the madmen in the Pentagon and at Lockheed Martin who are considered reasonable.

Pentagon watch