Campaign 2000: Why is Military Spending Not an Issue?

After more than a decade of gradual reductions in military spending, the Clinton administration and Congress increased Pentagon spending by $17 billion last year, and are planning to add a total of $120 billion over the next five years. While a decade ago there was widespread discussion of how to spend the “peace dividend” created by the end of the cold war, why have current plans to significantly increase military spending generated so little debate in this election year?

The simplest answer would be that the majority of Americans agree that current Pentagon spending levels are too low. Yet polling data suggests otherwise. A Gallup poll in May 1999 showed that 32% of respondents felt that military spending was too high, 28% felt that it was too low, and 35% felt that it was about right.

If, according to the poll, 67% of Americans oppose additional funding for the military—those who feel that military spending is too high, and those who believe its just about right—then why is there so little opposition to the proposed Pentagon spending increases? While there are countless contributing factors, the four main reasons are: a lack of political opposition to higher Pentagon spending, the complex relationship between Congress, the Pentagon and the defense industry, the perception that there is a budget surplus, and the acceptance by Americans of our nation’s preeminence in the international community and a reliance on the military to keep us there.

Lack of Political Leadership

In January 1999, President Clinton announced his plans for a major military spending increase, the first planned increase of his administration. While for several years the White House resisted, unsuccessfully, effort by the GOP-controlled Congress to increase Pentagon spending, the Clinton administration has had little credibility on military issues. The President’s own history of having avoided military service, coupled with the administration’s attempts early on to address the issue of gays in the U.S. military, eroded it’s relationship both with the Pentagon and conservatives in Congress.

Although the annual U.S. federal budget originates in the office of the President, the power to spend taxpayers’ dollars resides ultimately in the U.S. Congress. Congress has added nearly $35 billion to the administration’s annual Pentagon budget requests over the last five years. The Republican leadership in Congress has made boosting Pentagon spending one of its highest legislative priorities. And once the Clinton administration indicated its willingness to support additional Pentagon funding, Congressional resistance to further increases began to crumble. This process was accelerated by the retirement of a number of congressional members, such as Representative Ron Dellums (D-CA) and Senator Dale Bumpers (D-AR) who had opposed additional funding for the military and used their seniority and powerful committee assignments to organize resistance to major increases. Together, the policy shift by the Clinton Administration and the collapse of organized resistance in Congress to efforts to boost Pentagon spending made supporting additional Pentagon funding a “free vote”—one without political consequences—for members of Congress.

Yet while voting for additional military spending is likely to have little or no political consequences for politicians, being viewed as weak on defense issues can cost elections. It has become an article of political faith that few elected officials have lost elections by giving more money to the Pentagon, and fewer still have won elections by trying to cut military spending. Many elections have been lost, however, by politicians who were portrayed as being “soft” on defense issues, which is viewed as being unpatriotic.

The Defense Industry

Perhaps the most significant reason for the lack of congressional opposition to Pentagon funding increases is the success of defense contractors in making the argument that continued high levels of defense spending meant maintaining or creating jobs. One of the things expected of congressional members is that they will bring federal dollars to into their home districts and states. Funding packages for the Defense Department and for transportation programs are the largest sources of federal contracts. Being able to secure lucrative contracts for businesses in one’s state is considered a stepping stone to power for members of Congress and a key to being reelected.

Large employers, by mobilizing their workers, are able to deliver their messages very effectively to their elected officials. So, if the economy of a senator’s state is based on agriculture, he or she will work hard to insure that the farmers in the state are taken care of, and that programs of concern to them are funded and expanded. So too is the case of defense contractors. In many instances, defense contractors employ thousands of people in a number of states, either directly, or through subcontractors hired to work on specific programs. This has the effect of increasing a contractor’s political clout. While it is impossible to prove, it has long been suspected that contractors will hire subcontractors specifically to expand their influence and therefore the support for particular programs. In fact, the Air Force’s controversial F-22 fighter, according to Lockheed Martin and the other contractors working on the program, will employ “4,800 firms across 46 states.”

The Balanced Budget

The Balanced Budget Act of 1997 set caps on federal spending, and created a “pay as you go” system whereby increased spending in one area of the budget required corresponding cuts in others. In this “zero-sum” environment, it was harder to support Pentagon spending increases which were funded at the expense of critical domestic programs. Yet for the last two years the U.S. Treasury has run a budget surplus, and Congress and the administration have agreed, through the use of special supplementary spending legislation to fund both military and domestic programs. As long as the perception of a budget surplus exists it will be difficult to use the “trade-offs” argument against further proposed Pentagon spending increases.

America: The Lone Superpower

America’s perception of itself as a nation, although perhaps not the most important factor in why U.S. military spending is going up, is clearly a significant one. Americans like being “top dog” and it was fifty years of high military spending—much of which was justifiable, given the international climate—that got our country to that position. The United States enjoys its role as the world’s lone superpower, and Americans have yet to seriously consider the possibility that a continued reliance on the military as a principle tool of U.S. foreign policy, with the resulting continue high levels of military spending, may not be sufficient to maintain that position.

The U.S. must recognize that preventive actions—diplomacy, contributing to global economic development, promoting political and religious freedom—that get to the root causes of conflict are the long-term paths to global peace and stability. Until the majority of Americans embrace this change of philosophy those segments of American society which promote and benefit from increasing military spending are likely to continue to do so.