Communities all over the United States are reeling from budget cuts. Military contractors, meanwhile, have remained fat and well-fed on the one part of federal spending that so far hasn’t been touched by budget-cutting fever: the Pentagon.
One community recently decided to call attention to this disparity. In Montgomery County, a relatively wealthy Maryland suburb of Washington, DC, Peace Action Montgomery got together with a group of City Council members to craft a simple, straightforward resolution. It urged Congress “to make major reductions in the Pentagon budget, in a manner that does not harm the safety or lives of our troops, with the savings invested in state and local needs so that Montgomery County and other counties in Maryland can repair their deteriorating infrastructure, reverse budget cuts to education, health care, and other needs, and otherwise improve the welfare of their residents.”
On October 4, the Council president introduced this resolution with three cosponsors. One additional Council member announced that he would also support the resolution. With this majority, the resolution was guaranteed to pass when it came up for a vote on October 11.
But it didn’t pass. Cue the ominous movie soundtrack.
The Machine Fights Back
Lockheed Martin is one of the premier military contractors in the world. It also employs about 5,000 people in Montgomery County. Alerted to the resolution, Lockheed Martin switched into high gear. One of its top lobbyists began calling council members. The Washington Post reported that some Council members were also called by a “state delegate, and the offices of County Executive Isiah Leggett (D), Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) and Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D).”
Maryland officials were most upset at the prospect that Lockheed would up and leave Maryland – for Virginia. Last year, Northrop Grumman opted for Virginia over Maryland as the site of its new global headquarters. The prospect that Lockheed Martin might pull up stakes prompted Maryland County Executive Isiah Leggett to refer to the resolution as “a dagger pointed directly at the heart of Montgomery County.”
With that degree of opposition, at least one and perhaps two of the original supporters decided to rescind their support for the resolution. In order to avoid a defeat, the Council president pulled the resolution, and the Council never voted on it.
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Now the controversy has achieved national attention with conservative columnist George Will weighing in. In a column that dismisses the Occupy Wall Street movement, Will also refers to Montgomery Peace Action’s effort to get the resolution passed as part of all that he finds objectionable in the progressive tradition.
Setting the Record Straight
The controversy over this rather uncontroversial resolution – even right-wing Republicans like Tom Coburn of Oklahoma have agreed that Pentagon cuts must be on the table – began with an article in the conservative Washington Examiner newspaper. The piece emphasized the potential hazards of the resolution, citing “local economists and defense agencies [who] say such cuts likely would hurt local residents more than it would help them.”
With the Cold War over and the United States spending more on the military than all its potential adversaries combined, military contractors have fallen back on the jobs argument. Since weapons systems are built in virtually every congressional district in the country, it has been very difficult even for Pentagon officials to cut funding for patently unnecessary fighter jets and the like. This argument has filtered down to the community level as well, particularly at a time of state and federal budget cutbacks. As shown in Maryland and Virginia, states vie with each other to see which can offer the best deal—read state and local tax cuts--to keep or entice a military contractor. These deals may not be offered to other companies. For example, in 2010, Maryland passed a law created just for Lockheed Martin to exempt its guests, subcontractors, and employees from paying a hotel tax at Lockheed Martin’s new hotel located on its Bethesda campus, costing the state $351,000 per year in foregone taxes.
In fact, however, dollars invested in military spending are not good job creators. Spend a billion dollars on the military, economists Robert Pollin and Hedi Garrett-Peltier estimate, and you get about 11,000 jobs (just a little more than what Lockheed Martin employs in all of Maryland). Spend that same billion dollars on clean energy projects and you generate about 17,000 jobs. The same money invested in education produces nearly 30,000 jobs.
In other words, if the federal government reorganized its priorities according to the proposed Montgomery County resolution, the number of jobs in the county could increase substantially. Moreover, Lockheed Martin already does a good portion of its business in non-military fields. Pentagon cuts could encourage the company to reduce the military share of its business. Neither the county nor Lockheed Martin should view military cuts as a dagger. Rather, it’s an incentive: to invest in human needs and shift over to non-military manufacturing and services.
Montgomery County is home to many different kinds of employers, There’s the National Institutes of Health, the Health Resources and Services Administration, and other large Federal agencies. If military spending is not brought under control, the jobs of people working at these agencies will be under threat. Then there are the private businesses that depend on consistent spending on county infrastructure from roads to schools. With federal spending being dramatically cut to states and localities, including in Maryland, there is no money for infrastructure now.
If Montgomery County has to cut back on services because of the huge drain on national resources going to the Pentagon, private companies might move out of the county and new ones won’t replace them. Already one business has put its expansion into the county on hold. The innovative local restaurant chain Busboys & Poets has delayed any plans to expand into Silver Spring because of the council’s misguided decision on the resolution.
Montgomery County has a choice. It can side with the old Cold War economy and the current federal budget priorities that are bankrupting the country. Or it can be part of the shift to a new, sustainable economy.