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‘Build Back Better’ should mean reducing contractor influence over the Pentagon

The Pentagon and its budget have been captured by defense contractors and their boosters for too long. The consequences of this outsized influence have been as tragic as they’ve been predictable: endless wars, billions of dollars spent on weapon systems that never lived up to their game-changing promises, and the impairment of our country’s ability to respond to the biggest health crisis of most of our lifetimes. And when the Pentagon was asked to help fight the epidemic, it took billions meant for PPE and ventilators and handed it out to defense contractors.

As terrible as the COVID-19 pandemic has been for our country, it has illuminated just how distorted our defense policy and budgets have been. “The coronavirus pandemic lays bare the fragility of our health security,” Michèle Flournoy, who is widely believed to be named as Biden’s defense secretary, wrote in a joint op-ed for Defense One. But her recommendations for systems to combat China raise both the specter of initiating a new cold war and questions about whether those recommendations benefit the bottom line of current or former clients of her consulting firm, WestExec Advisors.

On top of that, according to In These Times, at least one-third of President-elect Biden’s agency review team for the Defense Department “work for orga­ni­za­tions, think tanks or com­pa­nies that either direct­ly receive mon­ey from the weapons indus­try, or are part of this indus­try.”

So, many fear that a Biden Pentagon won’t be very different from what we saw under President Trump. Despite a party platform that said, “it’s past time to rebalance our investments, improve the efficiency and competitiveness of our defense industrial base, conduct rigorous annual audits of the Pentagon, and end waste and fraud,” Biden himself told the press he didn’t foresee major cuts. And the defense industry certainly isn’t worried. “Our industry knows Joe Biden really well,” one defense consultant told the Washington Post.  

They’re off to a better start with Biden than they were with President Trump at the beginning of his administration. The president came into office declaring the F-35 program “out of control” and questioning the effectiveness of our new aircraft carriers that struggle to launch aircraft at the same rate as the carriers they’re replacing. Of course, the president quickly turned around to become one of the contractors’ biggest boosters, shoring up trillions in spending here at home and advocating for more arms sales abroad.

The Sustainable Defense Task Force correctly pointed out that the biggest global challenges we confront, including pandemics, are not military in nature. President-elect Biden won by promising to build our country back better. Investing in the Pentagon when the rest of the economy is suffering would be the worst way to do it, particularly because we knew that investments in other sectors of our economy, like healthcare, are more effective at both job creation and in strengthening our response to the current crisis.

But pandemic aside, the Pentagon’s budget, like so many of us, is long overdue for a haircut. One of the biggest contributors to our endless spending has been that we ask the military to do too much. One way to begin reining in defense spending would be to start winding down our endless wars, a goal both President Trump and President-elect Biden expressed support for. Even our war in Afghanistan, the so-called “good war” of the Obama administration, is so forgotten that it didn’t even merit a mention in the presidential debates. Promises to end these wars must be met with actions, starting with President-elect Biden announcing plans to end the 2001 and 2002 authorizations for the use of military force.

Reform must also come in challenging top-heavy bureaucracies, which put morale, combat effectiveness, and the budget all at risk. While attention has largely focused on the officials at the Pentagon, there is a similar proliferation occurring at functional and regionally-focused headquarters, called combatant commands. The American Enterprise Institute’s Mackenzie Eaglen wrote recently that combatant commands’ endless appetite to show force around the world grinds down our military, equipment, and taxpayer resources. Undergirding those excesses is an overreliance on service contracts, the “shadow workforce” of white collar workers supplementing federal employees (and often at a much higher cost). Even a 15 percent cut of those contracts could save tens of billions of dollars.

Many are pointing to this election as a signal that voters want more bipartisanship. To that end, one area that should be able to gain bipartisan support is finally getting rid of the Overseas Contingency Operations account.

As the Congressional Budget Office has shown, prior to 9/11 the Department of Defense only relied on supplemental war funding for the initial years of a conflict, before costs could be clearly known. But the OCO account has become such a slush fund that this year’s budget request included billions of dollars for base budget needs.

Continuing to rely on OCO also harms planning and management, the CBO told Congress, because it makes it easier to fund expensive and lower-priority programs that wouldn’t normally make the cut. Senators Jack Reed (D-R.I.) and Dick Durbin (D-Ill) both condemned the practice in a joint letter last year as “neither sustainable nor responsible.” Bipartisan amendments offered in the House would have required both more transparency and a plan to end the reliance on OCO.

But even this common sense reform faces significant resistance. The likely incoming chair of the Budget Committee, Senator Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), is fine with any means necessary to increase Pentagon spending, including offering an amendment in 2015 to boost OCO by $38 billion. When it comes to domestic spending, including money to help our economy recover, he’s already signaling the resurrection of the deficit hawks who largely went mysteriously absent during the Trump-era.

A new presidency is a major opportunity to reorient our country in the right direction, and the end of the Budget Control Act gives President-elect Biden even greater opportunities to fundamentally change how we keep Americans safe. That starts with seeking out independent voices, who are not in the pocket of the defense contractors, with ideas on how to responsibly reduce spending while keeping the country strong and secure. Building back better must include major cuts to the Pentagon’s budget — it’s time to stop throwing money at defense companies. 

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