U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds perform above Falcon Stadium  in Colorado Springs

U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds perform above Falcon Stadium on June 1, 2023 in Colorado Springs, Colorado.

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Gargantuan Pentagon Budget Puts 'Special Interests Over the National Interest,' New Reports Warn

"The U.S. has a government that is largely devoted to war and militarism," finds a new analysis from Brown University's Costs of War Project.

Two separate reports published Thursday reach similar conclusions about the United States' sprawling and ever-growing military budget: It is not making the country or the world any safer, it is far too amenable to corporate lobbying, and it is drawing funding away from healthcare, clean energy, education, and other critical public goods.

The new reports from the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft and Brown University's Costs of War Project come after President Joe Biden and House Republican leaders agreed to a military budget topline of $886 billion for fiscal year 2024—a level that war hawks in both parties are already working to increase.

William Hartung, a senior research fellow at the Quincy Institute, notes in his analysis that $886 billion for the military is "a sum far higher in real terms than the peaks of the Korean or Vietnam wars or the height of the Cold War."

"These enormous sums are being marshaled in support of a flawed National Defense Strategy that attempts to go everywhere and do everything, from winning a war with Russia or China, to intervening in Iran or North Korea, to continuing to fight a global war on terror that involves military activities in at least 85 countries," Hartung writes. "Sticking to the current strategy is not only economically wasteful, but will also make America and the world less safe."

The Costs of War report echoes that assessment, noting that the continuous growth of the nation's military budget—which now makes up more than half of the federal government's total discretionary spending—"has the effect of squeezing out the resources and power of other sectors, and weakening the United States' ability to perform core functions such as healthcare, infrastructure, education, and emergency preparedness."

"Because the majority of taxpayer dollars and federal resources are devoted to the military and military industries, and most government jobs are in the defense sector, the political power of this sector has become more deeply entrenched and other alternatives have become harder to pursue," reads the Brown analysis, authored by Heidi Peltier. "Instead of having a federal government that addresses various national priorities—including the health and education of its population and the sustainability of its infrastructure and environment—the U.S. has a government that is largely devoted to war and militarism."

The budget deal reached by the Biden White House and congressional Republicans perpetuates that trend.

If approved in the appropriations process later this year, the Biden-GOP Pentagon budget deal would add $28 billion to U.S. military spending next fiscal year compared to current levels.

And some lawmakers are exploring ways to circumvent the $886 billion topline to hand even more money to the Pentagon as new caps on non-military spending threaten funding for food aid, rental assistance, and other programs.

Politico reported last week that some lawmakers are hoping to stuff "cash for other Pentagon priorities" into a package ostensibly aimed at providing more assistance to Ukraine.

Hartung warned Thursday that "Congress could pass an emergency military aid package for Ukraine that includes not only funds needed for that nation to defend itself, but tens of billions of dollars for Pentagon or congressional pet projects that have nothing to do with defending Ukraine."

"This is precisely what happened during the 10-year period covered by the 2011 Budget Control Act (BCA)," he noted. "The Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) account—nominally meant to fund the Iraq and Afghan wars—was used to pay for hundreds of billions of dollars worth of items unrelated to the wars, as a way to evade the caps on the Pentagon's regular budget contained in the BCA."

"We are overspending on the Pentagon instead of providing adequate funding to address other urgent security needs, and too often favoring special interests over the national interest."

Such unchecked spending is likely to have massive benefits for the arms makers and other private contractors that aggressively lobby the federal government.

The Costs of War report points out that the five military-related companies that led their sector in lobbying spending in fiscal year 2021 also received the most contract dollars from the federal government.

"Firms such as Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, Raytheon, General Dynamics, and Boeing spend millions of dollars in lobbying each year and use their political capital to secure monopoly-like contracts with the Department of Defense," the report notes.

Hartung similarly highlights the "undue influence exerted by the arms industry and its allies in Congress, backed up by over $83 million in campaign contributions in the past two election cycles and the employment of 820 lobbyists, far more than one for every member of Congress."

"The industry also leverages the jobs its programs create to bring lawmakers on board to fund ever-higher budgets, despite the fact that the economic role of the arms sector has declined dramatically over the past three decades, from 3.2 million direct jobs to just one million now—six-tenths of one percent of a national labor force of over 160 million people," Hartung writes. "Last year alone, Congress added $45 billion to the Pentagon budget beyond what the department requested, much of it for systems built in the states or districts of key members, a process that puts special interests above the national interest."

Both new reports make the case for cutting U.S. military spending—which is larger than that of more than 144 nations combined—and directing the savings toward neglected public services.

"Reducing the military budget and funding other priorities such as healthcare, education, clean energy, and infrastructure," the Brown analysis argues, "will help increase other forms of security—the kinds of meaningful human security rooted in good health, good living conditions, and a productive and well-educated society—while also increasing employment nationwide."

And Hartung contends that, contrary to war hawks' claims that Pentagon cuts would compromise national security, the U.S. "could mount a robust defense for far less money if it pursued a more restrained strategy that takes a more realistic view of the military challenges posed by Russia and China, relies more heavily on allies to provide for the defense of their own regions, shifts to a deterrence–only nuclear strategy, and emphasizes diplomacy over force or threats of force to curb nuclear proliferation."

"This approach could save at least $1.3 trillion over the next decade, funds that could be invested in other areas of urgent national need," Hartung writes. "But making a shift of this magnitude will require political and budgetary reforms to reduce the immense power of the arms lobby."

To that end, Hartung suggests restrictions on the "revolving door" between the Pentagon and major military contractors. An April report assembled by Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) "identified 672 cases in 2022 in which the top 20 defense contractors had former government officials, military officers, members of Congress, and senior legislative staff working for them as lobbyists, board members, or senior executives."

Hartung also calls for a ban on "major weapons contractors funding the campaigns of members of the armed services committees and defense appropriations subcommittees of each house of Congress."

"We are overspending on the Pentagon instead of providing adequate funding to address other urgent security needs, and too often favoring special interests over the national interest," Hartung said in a statement Thursday. "Rethinking America's approach to defense can make us safer at a far lower cost."

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