Money, Politics & War

Systemic Corruption Helps to Drive War

By Micah L. Sifry

A nation decides to go to war for many reasons. Whatever one may think of the wisdom of President George W. Bush's decision to embark on war with Iraq, hopefully we can agree that the debate over going to war should not be skewed by powerful special interests and their ability to purchase access and influence in Washington.

Unfortunately, the facts about the defense industry's history of campaign contributions raises troubling questions about the decision-making not just for this war, but for national security beyond this war.

There is no doubt that the defense sector has been, since World War II, an ever more powerful lobby in Washington. Just recall President Eisenhower's warning in his farewell address to the nation on Jan. 17, 1961:

"This conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry is new in the American experience. The total influence -- economic, political, even spiritual -- is felt in every city, every statehouse, every office of the Federal government. ... We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes. We should take nothing for granted. Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals, so that security and liberty may prosper together."

That was 40 years ago. What would Ike think today?

The nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics conservatively estimates that defense contractors have been the source of $72.5 million in contributions to federal candidates and parties from 1989 to present. The total number is somewhat higher, because some major arms makers, like Boeing and General Electric, are giant diversified companies. Unless they give directly to a member of a defense-related committee in Congress, CRP classifies their giving along their main line of business -- aircraft manufacturing for Boeing, miscellaneous manufacturing for GE. (President Bush himself received nearly $200,000 from the defense industry for his 2000 campaign.) By comparison, peace and arms-control groups have given a total of $1.4 million over the same thirteen-year period, the Center reports.

The defense sector also gives to government in another influential way: with its top employees, through the revolving door.

According to the World Policy Institute's Arms Trade Resource Center, 32 major appointees of the Bush Administration -- including the deputy secretaries of defense and state, and the secretaries of the Navy and Air Force -- are former executives, consultants or major shareholders of top military contractors. This is one-and-a-half times as high as the number drawn from the energy sector. In addition, Lynne Cheney, wife of Vice President Dick Cheney, served on Lockheed's board of directors from 1994 to January 2001, accumulating over $500,000 in deferred director's fees in the process.

Three key policy decisions by the Bush administration, above and beyond the war with Iraq, are boons to the defense industry: deploying a missile defense system by 2004, developing a new generation of more "usable" nuclear weapons, and adopting a national security strategy of aggressive pre-emption of potential threats. Missile defense (which has yet to pass objective testing measures of effectiveness) could alone cost as much as $238 billion to deploy and maintain over the next 20 years, a windfall to prime contractors Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Raytheon and TRW.

Overall spending on national defense is approaching $400 billion for the current fiscal year, up from $329 billion when Bush took office. Most troubling, this rush to throw money at the defense industry has resulted in huge continued spending on Cold War-oriented weapons systems that Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld once said he wanted to abandon. The World Policy Institute notes that the 2003 budget includes $17 billion in such spending, for such outdated products as the Air Force's F-22 Raptor (prime contractors Lockheed Martin, Boeing and United Technologies) and the Navy's F-18E/F fighter (Boeing, GE and Northrop Grumman). According to a new US General Accounting Office report, the F-22 fighter program is dragging behind schedule and attempts by the Air Force to control costs are failing miserably. The new report, released in March by Rep. John Tierney (D-Mass.), says that the Air Force has been unable to implement cost-saving measures it promised and has essentially kept Congress in the dark about excessive cost overruns.

And then, there is this war. When members of Congress voted last October to give President Bush blanket authority to use force in Iraq, they were influenced by many factors. They heard from constituents, they heard from experts, they heard from administration officials and they listened to their own consciences. To say that campaign contributions from defense contractors were the defining consideration when they cast their vote would be a stretch. Nevertheless, it is important to examine the strong correlation between defense industry campaign contributions and members' votes.

Members of the House who voted to authorize the use of force got slightly more than twice the contributions from the defense sector than members who voted "no." The 296 members who voted "yes" received an average of almost $19,000 from defense contractors for the 2002 election cycle, and those who voted "no" received an average of $9,000. Of the 150 members of the House who had received at least $10,000 from the defense sector, 123 voted "yes" and 25 voted "no."

On the Senate side, where the vote was more lopsided (77-23), the correlation is almost as strong. "Yes" voters got an average of almost $60,000 each over the past six years, a full Senate cycle, while those who voted "no" received an average of $38,000.

Overall, there was a total of $6.9 million in defense-sector contributions to House members in the 2001-2002 cycle, and another $2.6 million to the Senate. Peace and arms control oriented PACs gave a total of $396,000, meaning they were outspent by about 23 to one.

Why is it important to look at these numbers? Again, we are not suggesting that members of Congress cast a vote last October giving the president the kind of war powers he wanted because of campaign contributions. No one's vote on the war was bought for $10,000, or even $60,000.

It's not individual corruption, but systemic corruption that's the problem. The financial heft of the defense lobby, like that of other special interest lobbies that are generous contributors, influences the larger pool of people who become our representatives in Congress, skewing it toward people who are predisposed to their positions. Candidates with different convictions about America's role in the world have a much smaller universe of deep-pocketed donors in which to hunt for sufficient funds to run a viable campaign.

Boeing and Lockheed would not, after all, fund someone who thinks the defense budget is too large. Then consider that, of the 435 members of the House, all but 73 received contributions from the defense sector. In the Senate, 95 out of 100 were so favored. The very lack of money from the millions of Americans -- up to half in surveys -- who during the war debate have been skeptical of the administration's call to confront Iraq means that they were underrepresented in Washington, and that their concerns did not get as much attention from Congress as they might have.

Alas, when we have a dollar-driven democracy, those with cash are more equal than others.

Micah L. Sifry, senior analyst with Public Campaign, is the co-editor with Christopher Cerf of The Iraq War Reader: History, Documents, Opinions, due to be published in April 2003 by Simon & Schuster. This originally appeared at

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