Secret spending by the weapons industry is making us less safe

F-35
F-35

Two thousand, four hundred. That’s how many expensive and dysfunctional F-35 fighter planes American taxpayers are paying to have built, as part of a defense system that may never be fully ready for combat.

Two hundred billion dollars. That’s how much American taxpayers would save if Congress decided to end this program now. That’s $200 billion that could go toward things that make us safer — like public health measures to prevent the next global pandemic or deal with the epidemic of gun violence.

Unfortunately, many members of Congress – on both sides of the aisle – are beholden to the military-industrial complex. The Pentagon’s budget keeps climbing, year after year, and Americans are no safer. Why is that? And what can we do about it?

The three main drivers of excessive spending on the Department of Defense are strategic overreach, pork-barrel politics and corporate lobbying. A 2021 report from Open Secrets reveals that, over the last 20 years, the defense sector has dropped $285 million in political donations and $2.5 billion on lobbying to influence Congress and the federal government.

Lockheed Martin, the corporation that makes the F-35, spends roughly $7 million per year on campaign contributions and $13 million a year on lobbying. In the U.S. House of Representatives, there is even an F-35 caucus that organized a letter – signed by 132 members, both Democrats and Republicans – calling for more F–35s than the Defense Department had requested in its fiscal year 2022 budget proposal. And this year key committees in both houses have voted to add F-35s beyond what the Pentagon even asked for, pushing the annual cost for the system to nearly $12 billion — more than the entire discretionary budget of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

So, for about $20 million in campaign cash and lobbying expenses, Lockheed Martin has convinced Congress to buy even more defective and obsolete fighter planes than the notoriously wasteful Pentagon had claimed to need.

But it’s not just the campaign money or the armies of lobbyists that help major contractors cash in. It’s also their exaggerated claims about jobs in key states and congressional districts. Lockheed Martin even has an interactive map on its website that shows its version of how many jobs the F-35 creates in each state. But its claims that the F-35 creates jobs almost everywhere are simply false. A lot of the states listed on the map have only a handful of jobs related to the F-35, and over half of the jobs are in just two states — Texas and California. 

And another thing Lockheed Martin doesn’t want you to think about is that virtually any other expenditure of the same funds would create more jobs — 40 percent more for infrastructure or green energy, one and one-half times as many in health care, and nearly twice as many in education. Wasting money on dysfunctional aircraft instead of spending it on things we need actually costs jobs.

As for the millions the weapons industry spends on campaign contributions and lobbying, that’s just the political spending we know about. Corporations like Lockheed Martin also write big checks to trade associations under the guise of paying “dues” to these groups.

These organizations, such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the Business Roundtable and the National Defense Industrial Association, function effectively as money laundering machines to do the dirty political work that corporations don’t want their shareholders or the public to know about. And the major contractors also fund Pentagon spending advocacy groups like the Air Force Association, the Navy League and even the Submarine Industrial Base Council, not to mention state and local groups that lobby for more Pentagon spending for their communities.

President Biden has the power to stop the hidden payoffs and secretive spending that juice out-of-control Pentagon budgets. With the stroke of his pen, Biden can issue an executive order to require all government contractors that receive more than $1 million for federal projects to disclose every last penny of their political spending, including six-figure checks to trade associations that pressure members of Congress and prop up their preferred candidates. More transparency would take the power out of the hands of defense contractors and give it back to the people.

We can all agree that secret money in politics has been the norm for too long, but it doesn’t have to stay this way. It’s time for President Biden to use his executive power to pull the curtain back on hidden political spending by those who benefit from government contracts.

Maybe then Congress will stop buying fighter planes, like the F-35 with its 800 unresolved defects and costs that are going through the roof.

Janiyah Williams is a fellow in the Inclusive Democracy Program at Rethink Media. William D. Hartung is a senior research fellow at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft.

Tags Defense Department Defense spending F-35 fighter jet Lockheed Martin Pentagon

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