In today’s polarized American political process, it seems like the Democrats and Republicans are deadlocked on every topic. What they can agree on, however, is the defense budget. When it comes to issues such as infrastructure, health care, raising wages, and more, the question we often hear is: “How can we pay for that?” Yet each year, both sides of the congressional aisle vote for military budget increases with little hesitation. Our one area of bipartisanship is these increasingly reckless amounts of money given to our military.
U.S. defense spending is astonishingly wasteful. In 1990, Congress passed the Chief Financial Officers Act, which mandated that all federal agencies be audited regularly. However, the Pentagon was not audited until November of 2018. The result? As then-Deputy Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan said: “We failed the audit, but we never expected to pass it.” In true Pentagon fashion, the audit cost a grand total of $972 million.
Despite the fact that we’re already spending more on our military than the next ten nations combined (six of which are our close allies, including Britain and France), President Trump sent Congress a request in March for a defense budget of $750 billion for the 2020 fiscal year. “We love and need our Military and gave them everything – and more,” he tweeted the previous month. Republicans in the House of Representatives agreed with Trump, pushing for the full $750 billion. In July, the House Democrats voted to appropriate $733 billion for the 2020 defense budget. In other words, on the largest piece of discretionary spending in the federal budget (which accounts for more than half), Democrats and Republicans were divided by a mere 2.3 percent.
In his farewell address to the American people, President Dwight Eisenhower warned about the dangers of the military-industrial complex. He said: “We have been compelled to create a permanent armaments industry of vast proportions … yet, we must not fail to comprehend its grave implications. We must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex . . . The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist. We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes.” Eisenhower, the same man who had served as the supreme commander of the Allied forces in Europe during World War II, saw the dangers of coupling our military with our democratic processes. He recognized that when military influence affects our economic and political systems, it can lead to inflated military spending and excessive military power. Now, almost 60 years later, Eisenhower’s nightmare is quite real. In 2019, all 50 states have defense industry jobs. This is no accident, but a matter of politics. As a result, nearly all members of Congress are incredibly hesitant to cut back (and/or oppose growth in) military spending, due to the political ramifications of cuts in their constituencies. They recognize that when military spending increases, it can lead to new defense-related jobs, and even newly-located industries, in their districts and states. Our economy is so heavily intertwined with the military-industrial complex that if we were ever to cut back on military spending, a significant number of Americans would be out of work. Instead, we simply push the issue further down the road, and cut from other government spending or borrow unsustainably.
The establishment and growth of the military-industrial complex in America is a grave development. Since the 1990s, the United States has served as the world’s largest weapons exporter, with some exported weapons going to less-than-savory actors. Saudi Arabia is our largest arms partner; the U.S. signed an arms deal worth an advertised $110 billion with the country in 2018. These weapons, in turn, have been used recklessly in Saudi Arabia’s conflicts. Horrifically, a 2018 Saudi attack on a school bus in Yemen that killed 29 children was carried out with an American-made bomb. The size of our military-industrial complex should not be allowed to preclude us from controlling our arms exports tightly.
Minimizing our reliance on the defense industry requires us to retool our economy. Much-needed investments in domestic infrastructure and clean energy sources could accomplish this. But the significant influence our defense sector wields in our politics makes change difficult. In 2006, more than a quarter of Congress held shares in major defense contractors, and the CEOs of these contractors regularly contribute to political campaigns. In the 2012 cycle, individuals and political action committees associated with the defense sector gave more than $27 million for campaign purposes. Because of their essential status in our economy (due to the continuous increases in defense spending) and their financial connections to our politicians, defense contractors are highly resistant to political change. Until we elect representatives who are willing to suffer the short-term political consequences of reducing such spending, we should expect the cycle of increased defense spending and cuts to other programs, or rising national debt, to continue.