It is news to no one who pays the slightest attention to American politics that Congress is no longer responsive to the people. Incumbency is so well institutionalized that elections generally don't mean much. Take the case of guns: House Majority Leader Tom DeLay approves of the private ownership of assault weapons and machine guns, despite complaints from police across the country that they're outgunned by criminals, despite the 65% of the public that wants them banned, despite pleas from the relatives of murdered Americans. On this issue, the National Rifle Assn. seems to own the Congress.
A similar situation exists with regard to munitions makers. In one district after another, the weapons industry has bought the incumbent, and would-be challengers are unable to overcome the advantage of incumbency. On really big projects like the B2 Stealth bomber, contracts for different parts of the airplane are placed in as many congressional districts as possible. This is done to spread the pork (in the form of jobs) around. But it also ensures that a wide swath of congressional representatives have a disincentive to ever ask whether we really need another weapon of massive destruction. It's part of the reason we have defense budgets of $425 billion per year (plus that extra $87 billion for Iraq and Afghanistan, $20 billion for nuclear weapons and $200 billion more for veterans and the wounded), leading to the highest governmental deficits in postwar history. It seems likely that only bankruptcy will stop the American imperial juggernaut.
California's 50th Congressional District in northern San Diego County where I live is a good example of exactly how this plays out at the local level. The constituents of the 50th have been misrepresented in Washington for the last 14 years by a wholly paid-for tool of the military-industrial complex, the Republican incumbent, Randy "Duke" Cunningham. The heavily populated 50th District has changed in recent years from the wealthy Republican stronghold it once was to a much more politically diverse mix, and that should spell trouble for Cunningham, whose record on such things as abortion, school vouchers and the environment are increasingly out of step with a wide swath of his constituents.
This year, Cunningham is opposed by Francine Busby, a well-qualified Democrat whose views are probably much closer to a majority of voters in the 50th. But a look at the candidates' fundraising and expenditures demonstrates why Busby faces an uphill fight. Incumbents have an advantage that's almost impossible to overcome, as races throughout the nation will demonstrate this fall. The Cunningham-Busby race illustrates why.
Let's start with money. As of June 30, campaign records show, Cunningham had raised $608,977, or nearly 10 times the amount Busby had raised. About 46% of Cunningham's money comes from political action committees, or PACs, compared with 2% of Busby's. Nearly a third of Cunningham's money comes from out of state, compared with only 3% of Busby's.
What kind of people like to give to an incumbent like Cunningham? Based on Federal Election Commission data released in August, his top contributors by industry/occupation are defense electronics ($66,550), defense aerospace ($39,000), lobbyists ($32,500), miscellaneous defense ($29,200), air transport ($26,500), health professionals ($24,700) and real estate ($23,001). Cunningham's No. 1 financial backer is the Titan Corp. of San Diego, which gave him $15,000. It has recently been in the news because an Arabic translator it supplied under a contract with the U.S. Army has been implicated in the Abu Ghraib prison scandal in Iraq.
Now it may be that these donors contribute to Cunningham instead of Busby just because they like the guy. But Titan's $657-million Pentagon contract had to be approved by the House Appropriations Committee's national defense subcommittee, on which Cunningham sits. Lockheed Martin, the world's largest weapons manufacturer, also gave Cunningham a whopping $15,000. They too can't help but be interested in those purse strings he holds. The list of Cunningham's top contributors reads like a Who's Who among the nation's war suppliers: Raytheon (which makes the Tomahawk cruise missile), Northrop Grumman, General Dynamics and on and on.
To judge by Cunningham's voting record, their money was well spent. Not only has he been a strong supporter of the war in Iraq — which directly benefits many of his contributors — he also has embraced the causes of the neconservative strategists in Washington who favor a more aggressive foreign policy that would probably, down the road, benefit the defense contractors even more.
In some sense, Cunningham comes by his support for the military honestly. He cites as his most important lifetime achievement his 20 years as a naval aviator, during which time he flew combat missions in Vietnam. During the war, he shot down five communist jets (three of them in one day) and was himself brought down by a surface-to-air missile. On May 10, 1972, he was rescued from the South China Sea by a helicopter.
But Cunningham has exploited this record into what one commentator calls "hero inflation" and Shakespeare's Henry V called "remembering with advantages." He now claims to have been a military hero deserving of the Medal of Honor (which he didn't get), even though he acknowledges that his dog-fighting had little effect on the course of the war. Cunningham has created a company called Top Gun Enterprises that sells lithographs of himself in his pilot's outfit and a book he has written about his Navy exploits. His company's website claims that the 1986 film "Top Gun," starring Tom Cruise, depicted many of Cunningham's "real-life experiences."
All of this wouldn't mean much in terms of his ability to represent his district, but Cunningham is now using his war record as a cudgel with which to hammer John F. Kerry, who is supported by many residents of the politically divided 50th District. On April 22, for example, Cunningham said in the House of Representatives: "Mr. Speaker, I was shot down over North Vietnam
. I can remember the anger and the disparaging remarks that John Kerry made about our service. I remember the rage in all of us from his slander
. Even today, John Kerry votes against defense, the military, veterans and intelligence bills that would enforce the safe return of our men and women. We do not need someone that would vote like a Jane Fonda as commander in chief."
On social issues too Cunningham is far out of step with many of his constituents. In 1998, after Cunningham had been operated on for prostate cancer, he described the procedure as "just not natural, unless maybe you're Barney Frank." Frank, a fellow House member and a Massachusetts Democrat who is openly gay, replied that Cunningham "seems to be more obsessed with homosexuality than most homosexuals."
In the end, though, Cunningham's failure to represent his district is unlikely to cost him is job. Why? Because if he needs to, he can outspend Busby 8 to 1. And in elections today, money talks.
Chalmers Johnson is a retired professor of international relations at UC San Diego and the author of, among other books, "The Sorrows of Empire" and "Blowback."
© Copyright 2004 Los Angeles Times