The Congressional ‘Supercommittee’: Debt Panel or Death Panel?
By Medea Benjamin and Charles Davis
When it comes to government handouts, there’s no bigger welfare queens than the Pentagon and the legions of mercenaries and weapons manufacturers profiting from America’s half-dozen ongoing wars and its global empire of military bases. In fact, more than half of U.S. income taxes are funneled, not to welfare mothers and underprivileged youths, but to what President Eisenhower called the “military-industrial complex.”
Endless war and a global empire are costly, as it turns out, with U.S. military spending roughly doubling since 2001 thanks largely to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. And that’s not counting the moral costs associated with being a nation whose greatest export these days is violence, the perpetration of which Barack Obama notably defended even as he was accepting a Nobel Prize for Peace. Military aggression doesn’t just take its toll on those of the receiving end of America’s liberating Hellfire missiles and cluster bombs—our last domestically manufactured goods.
Yet despite the riches it receives courtesy of the American taxpayer, no group feels more entitled than military contractors and their intellectual mercenaries on Capitol Hill fighting for ever more handouts, fear-mongering talking points in hand. War profiteers have even banded together to safeguard the money they make from death and destruction, forming the group “Second to None” to counter the “threat” of military spending cuts.
Unfortunately for taxpayers and poor foreigners alike, no one in a position of real power, conservative Republican or liberal Democrat, is seriously entertaining the idea of dismantling the U.S. empire. And that’s a shame, because U.S. spending on “national security” has become so divorced from the idea of defense and so bloated – coming in at more than $1 trillion a year, according to some estimates – that it now roughly equals what the rest of the world spends on bombs and tanks combined. But that trillion-dollar-a-year entitlement is not the one lawmakers are talking about cutting.
Take Washington Senator Patty Murray, co-chair of the recently created debt commission tasked with slashing federal spending. Murray is generally considered one of the more liberal members of the Senate and is the only woman on the panel, with that latter fact alone enough to win her praise from some progressive groups. One organization, MomsRising, is even urging the nation’s mothers to sign a petition preemptively praising Murray’s work on the panel, promising to “deliver a real superhero cape, tennis shoes with wings, and your signatures directly to Senator Murray.”
We suggest that mothers who don’t want their children sent off to kill and be killed in unjust wars hold off for a bit. After all, there’s nothing heroic – or motherly – about sending other people’s kids off to kill and be killed in a foreign land, something Murray has voted to do time and again.
Though she laudably opposed the invasion of Iraq, Murray has consistently voted to fund America’s wars and has been silent in the wake of evidence her fellow Democrat, President Obama, has killed dozens if not hundreds of mothers and their children as part of his expansion of the war on terror. Indeed, according to Amnesty Internatinoal 14 women and 21 children in a single cluster bomb attack in Yemen. At least 140 civilians were killed in a single strike as part of Obama’s escalated war in Afghanistan, including 93 children. Yet Murray has provided the administration a blank check, only meekly repeating boilerplate platitudes such as the need to “ask tough questions” and “insist on a clear plan,” which we suspect doesn’t mean a whole lot to any Afghan mothers.
Murray has been such a reliable friend of the military-industrial complex that she has taken in well over a quarter-million dollars from the war industry in the last four years alone, more than any other member of the debt panel she co-chairs. And Murray’s worth every penny. In a recent ad, she celebrates the fact she “put Boeing back in the game” to win a lucrative Air Force contract it originally lost – you can’t make this up – after it was caught committing bribery, which is illegal when it involves government procurement officials but not, so it seems, politicians. It’s hard to find a better example of the endemic corruption in Washington than a corrupt lawmaker helping a corrupt company get a contract it gained – and at one point, lost – because of corruption.
“Senator Murray leveled the playing field,” the senator’s ad boasts. “Because we should build these planes. And that means jobs.” Jobs for Americans, obviously: it would be macabre to brag about creating work for Pakistani funeral directors.
Don’t expect much from Murray’s colleagues on the debt committee, either. According to the Associated Press, the six Republicans and six Democrats on the debt panel “represent states where the biggest military contractors – Lockheed Martin, General Dynamics Corp., Raytheon Co. and Boeing Co. – build missiles, aircraft, jet fighters and tanks while employing tens of thousands of workers.” That means they’re even more anxious to please the military establishment and weapons manufacturers than your average politician. Collectively, members of the committee tasked with cutting $1.2 trillion in federal spending have, since 2007, taken in around $1 million in campaign contributions from military contractors.
And as Robert Greenwald and Derrick Crowe observe, “these companies plan to ‘cash in’ on these donations to stop real cuts to big war contracts.” They have good reason to feel optimistic. Just look at who else is on the panel.
Senator Max Baucus, a Democrat from Montana, has been an even more reliable supporter of the warfare state than Murray, having backed the 2003 invasion of Iraq and every subsequent escalation of the war on terror, a fact that’s netted him more than $139,000 in campaign cash over the last four years, second only to his colleague from Washington. Massachusetts Senator John Kerry, meanwhile, has been in favor of just about every U.S. military intervention in the last two decades, from Iraq to Libya. Maryland Congressman Chris Van Hollen’s top campaign contributor is none other than Lockheed Martin.
And while some self-styled spokesmen for the Tea Party have said they are open to cutting military spending, the same can’t be said for Republicans on the committee. Asked about the impact of reduced military spending on his state’s war industry, Pennsylvania Senator Pat Toomey responded that “we all have very good reasons to try to prevent” such cuts. So much for that.
The Obama administration has also been clear about its desire to safeguard spending for empire. Leon Panetta, the president’s hand-picked choice to lead the Defense Department, even declared that cuts to the military “would do real damage to our security, our troops and their families, and our military’s ability to protect the nation.” So much for subtly. His suggestion? Raise taxes and cut Social Security and Medicare instead.
Like a James Bond villain, you have to hand military contractors this: they’re diabolical, yes, but they’re also pretty smart. Beyond just campaign donations, they have spent decades consciously spreading their operations across the country to the point that no congressional district lacks its own well-paying weapons factory. As a result, almost every lawmaker is in their pocket, with even the staunchest conservatives channeling their inner Keynesians to promote militarism as a jobs creator.
Fifty years ago President Eisenhower warned Americans that this would happen – that the rise of a massive arms industry, an industry that profits from war and loses money as a result of peace, threatened to “endanger our liberties [and] democratic processes,” creating an institutional incentive for ever more spending on war and empire. That’s no longer a threat, these days: it’s the sad reality.
Doing something about it will require a lot more than politely asking our politicians to, pretty please, stop funneling our money to those who profit from war. Instead of sending superhero capes and tennis shoes to our lawmakers’ offices, as the group MomsRising suggests, we ought to be occupying them; instead of just sending letters, we ought to be engaging in direct action and demanding that they end the wars that have wracked the U.S. economy. Politicians, being politicians, respond to pressure, not politeness.
Medea Benjamin (email@example.com) is cofounder of Global Exchange (www.globalexchange.org) and CODEPINK: Women for Peace (www.codepinkalert.org). She invites readers to join her for the DC protest at Freedom Plaza starting October 6. See www.october2011.org.
Charles Davis (http://charliedavis.blogspot.com) is an independent journalist who has covered Congress for public radio and the international news wire Inter Press Service.