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 empire?"

"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 GI Joe.

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."

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