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Senate bails out the weapons industry once again

A proposal this week to modestly cut the already needlessly high and wasteful Pentagon budget failed miserably.

Analysis | Military Industrial Complex

Press coverage of yesterday’s passage of the Senate version of the annual Pentagon spending bill, known formally as the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), has mostly focused on the looming battle over “culture war” provisions included in the House version of the bill, including measures that would constrain the Pentagon’s ability to promote diversity, fight racism in the ranks, and promote reproductive freedom and LGBTQ rights.

Meanwhile, neither chamber did much to question the Pentagon’s soaring budget, which could reach $1 trillion over the next few years if current trends continue. An amendment by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) that would have cut the Pentagon budget by 10 percent failed by a vote of 88 to 11, suggesting that the vast majority of members are perfectly happy throwing $886 billion at the Pentagon and the Department of Energy (for nuclear weapons work), with few questions asked and few strings attached.

The Senate vote represented a monumental failure of basic oversight that will set the stage for billions of dollars of waste even as it makes America and its allies less safe. Based on a CBS 60 Minutes investigation earlier this year and a hearing convened this week by Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), routine price gouging by weapons contractors and unaccountable spending by the Pentagon are back in the spotlight.  

There are endless examples of contractors overcharging the Pentagon and fleecing the taxpayer. Sen. Warren mentioned just a few in this week’s hearing: paying $1,500 for a medical device that could be purchased at Walmart for $192; giving Boeing $70 for a pin that was worth four cents; and paying $1,800 for vaccines that normally cost $125. And as 60 Minutesnoted after interviewing former Pentagon procurement official Shay Assad, “[t]he Pentagon, he told us, overpays for almost everything – for radar and missiles … helicopters … planes … submarines… down to the nuts and bolts.” Indeed, RS reported recently that the Pentagon paid nearly $52,000 for a trash can.

Unfortunately, if the House and Senate votes on the NDAA are any indication, too many members of Congress continue to be willing to throw ever more money at the Pentagon without holding the department or the corporations that consume more than half of its budget accountable.

And it’s not just about price gouging. Barely a word was said in either house of Congress about America’s misguided, overly ambitious defense strategy, which is the ultimate driver behind the move towards trillion dollar Pentagon budgets. The Pentagon’s current approach is a “cover-the-globe” strategy that calls for being able to win a war against Russia or China, take military action against Iran or North Korea, and continue to wage a global war on terror that includes operations in at least 85 countries.  

A more restrained strategy that takes a more realistic view of the military challenges posed by China and Russia, seeks diplomatic solutions to regional security risks, rolls back the Pentagon’s $2 trillion program for building a new generation of nuclear weapons, and scales back the department’s use of hundreds of thousands of private contractors, could save over $1.3 trillion over the next decade, as noted in a recent Quincy Institute paper. Congress needs to seriously debate the appropriate role of the U.S. military in our foreign policy, and stop engaging in inflammatory rhetoric that exaggerates foreign threats and funding parochial projects that have more to do with bringing revenue into key districts than they do with carrying out any rational defense strategy.

The House and Senate could partially redeem themselves later this year if they at least head off efforts by hawks on Capitol Hill to increase the administration’s $886 billion military spending request as part of an emergency supplemental package. A number of senators who would normally have voted for Sen. Sanders’ 10 percent cut amendment said they were respecting the $886 billion figure set out in the debt ceiling agreement. But hawks have had no such qualms. They view the $886 billion as a floor, not a ceiling, and they will add as much to the Pentagon budget as the political market will bear, much to the delight of their supporters in the arms industry.

Enough is enough. It’s time to stop squandering money on the Pentagon at a time when there are urgent needs to be addressed with respect to climate, public health, and economic inequality. Our strength as a nation should be grounded in a healthy, well educated population and a well functioning democracy. We have a lot of work to do to make progress on those fronts, and pouring more money into war and preparations for war will only undermine our efforts to do so.

Committee Chairman U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) speaks during a Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee hearing on Julie Su's nomination to be Labor Secretary, on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., April 20, 2023. REUTERS/Amanda Andrade-Rhoades
Analysis | Military Industrial Complex
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