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How To Cut Hundreds of Billions in War Spending

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The debt limit crisis that’s consumed Washington, D.C. created an unexpected silver lining: the first opportunity in a decade to make real cuts to our runaway military budget. The deal reached to allow a rise in the debt limit "includes about $350 billion in guaranteed cuts for the Pentagon and other defense-related programs, plus up to $600 billion in additional reductions that will be triggered if Congress fails to reach a different agreement" to reduce the deficit. These cuts would have been completely unthinkable to D.C. conventional wisdom as recent as a year ago, but rising public opposition to two unpopular wars and concerns about the budget have finally put this bloated spending in danger. If we seize this opportunity, we can make big strides toward correcting a broken foreign policy that's made our weapons, not our ideals, the most prominent face of America abroad.

Unfortunately, heavy lobbying by the war industry and their bought-and-paid-for allies are kicking a campaign to stop these cuts into overdrive. Already, contractor lobbyists are shouting about a supposed "sword of Damocles" hanging over our national security, and their allies in the Pentagon like Army Gen. Martin Dempsey are calling these sensible cuts, "extraordinarily difficult and very high risk." (This from the guy who thought the Iraq War was a good idea...) There's going to be a protracted campaign waged by war profiteers and their allies to stop these cuts, and and their first move will be to try to stack the new congressional deficit commission with toadies to protect their profit margins. The only way to seize the opportunity to reign in the Pentagon is to keep compromised war industry allies off the deficit commission. To do that, Americans will have to stand toe-to-toe against the army of contractor lobbyists now descending on Capitol Hill.

The United States spends far, far too much for military purposes, far in excess of what's needed to defend our country. The U.S. is the biggest spender in the world on militarism, having spent roughly $700 billion in 2010, more than 6 times the amount spent by the next country on the list, China. In fact, we spend more than the next 15 nations on the list combined. Put another way, we’re spending like we expect to fight a crazy world war against China, France, the United Kingdom, Russia, Japan, Germany, Italy, Saudi Arabia, India, Brazil, Australia, South Korea, Spain, Turkey, Canada, Iraq and Israel at the same time. (We even helpfully have bases in or around all those countries, too.) This kind of spending costs jobs, and gets us into wars with deep social costs. We don’t have a “defense” budget. We have an empire super-budget, and we can’t afford it.

With that kind of money being spent, someone is getting very, very rich, especially companies like Lockheed Martin, Boeing and Northrup Grummon. These companies are among the worst stewards of taxpayer money and the most corrupt entities that do business with the government. But, every time some idealistic public servant gets the idea that maybe we shouldn't be forking over billions to these corporations for no good reason, the defense industry and their allies in the government engage in over-the-top scaremongering about supposed dire consequences. (But, again, even if we cut our spending in half, we'd spend triple what our next war-spending rival spends, which kind of begs the question, "What exactly are they doing with all that money?") The fear tactics, faux patriotism and the clever placement of war industry facilities in every congressional district to enable "job loss blackmail" traditionally protect the war budget from even the most sensible and modest cuts.

The debt limit deal, though, changes things significantly. The deal creates a new 12-member Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction, with members appointed by the House and Senate leadership of both major parties. According to the New York Times, "The stated goal of the new committee — composed of equal numbers of Democrats and Republicans from the House and the Senate — is to reduce federal budget deficits by a total of at least $1.5 trillion over 10 years. The panel was given a deadline of Nov. 23, 2011. ...If the committee cannot agree on a plan, or if Congress does not promptly enact its recommendations, the government would automatically cut spending," with the lion’s share of the automatic cuts hitting Medicare and the military budget. Because the American people would much rather cut military spending than social programs like Social Security and Medicare, there’s a real chance that major cuts to the war budget could emerge as part of the deficit reduction plan. That’s the historic opportunity in front of us.

The danger, though, is that war industry companies who make a killing off the insane military budget will corrupt the process. There’s already a lobbying frenzy under way, and you can bet that an industry that spent around $70 million on lobbying this year and gave $50 million in campaign contributions will pull out all the stops to keep the military gravy train rolling. What they hope to buy is a deficit reduction committee stacked with their lapdogs who will protect the war budget from needed cuts. If that happens, the war industry’s allies in Congress will slash spending on popular, effective public programs to pay for massive profits for Pentagon contractors.

To keep the war industry from corrupting the process, Republican and Democratic leaders must keep elected officials with deep ties to the war industry off the deficit committee. That’s the most important thing Congress can do to make sure that we seize this opportunity to get our insane war spending under control. It won't be easy: one of people who gets to make appointments to the committee, House Speaker John Boehner, took more than $30,000 in campaign contributions from the war industry just in the 2012 cycle. We'll have to fight publicly to force Congress to appoint a "clean" commission, and to expose any appointees who are on the contractors' dime. Brave New Foundation’s new WarCosts campaign is circulating a petition to congressional leaders urging them to keep war profiteering dollars away from the deficit commission. Please sign it. We have a historic opportunity to make real cuts to an out-of-control war budget, and your voice is the only defense we have against the deluge of corruption headed towards Capitol Hill.