Congress chose to bail out military contractors over people earlier this month by passing the final military budget of the Trump administration with veto-proof majorities in both chambers. The House approved the Fiscal Year 2021 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) on December 8, 335 to 78 (with one “present” vote). The Senate followed suit three days later, passing the $740.5 billion Pentagon budget bill, 84 to 13 with three Senators abstaining.
Considering that about half of the Pentagon’s budget is awarded to the private sector through contracts, the NDAA effectively gives war corporations like Lockheed Martin another round of direct cash assistance, while Congress continues to defer providing desperately needed aid to ordinary Americans.
What explains Congress’s preference for buying weapons over delivering basic support during a pandemic? It’s not public opinion, especially as it relates to Democrats’ votes. Among congressional Democrats, 84 percent of House members and 87 percent of senators ignored the policy preferences of their base.
Public opinion surveys suggest that Democrat and Democrat-leaning voters largely oppose military budgets that are already higher than at any point during the Korean and Vietnam wars, and the Reagan buildup of the 1980s.
Instead, congressional Democrats’ votes appear to be heavily influenced by the campaign contributions of the same war profiteers for whom the NDAA is a corporate bailout. During the 2020 election cycle (2019–20), the war industry provided $14.6 million in campaign contributions to House candidates and $6.6 million to Senate candidates.
Democratic votes on the NDAA correlate strongly with the campaign cash members accepted from the war industry. On average, House Democrats who voted for the NDAA accepted four times the amount of war industry cash as those who voted against it. In the Senate, Democrats who cast supporting votes took in six times as much industry cash.
This is empirical support for what we already knew: campaign cash from weapons manufacturers steers Congress into buying more weapons. But the results also inform our path forward in two central ways. The first is that recruiting “no” votes will come from the pool of Democrats who do not rely on war industry financing. The second is that the top recipients of war industry cash will not be swayed and must be replaced by a primary challenger.
Creating a bloc of Democrats in the House large enough to hold up an NDAA will be critical to extracting funding for direly needed social programs — whether it be for survival checks, Medicare for All, or the Green New Deal — from a Senate that will likely remain opposed to advancing legislation aligned with working-class interests.
Because NDAAs are considered “must-pass” legislation by both the media and a large portion of Congress, these military spending bills make for a formidable bargaining chip, which congressional Democrats failed to use last week.
The play for House Democrats should have been to refuse to vote for the NDAA to force the Senate finally passed a law that sends survival checks to all US adults (which 70 percent of the US public, and 82 percent of Democrat or Democrat-leaning voters support).
For this legislative tactic to be successful, a broad coalition of leftists, socialists, and anti-imperialists must cultivate popular support. One way to do so would be to popularize a framing of military spending that reflects its true nature as class warfare. Not only does social spending reduce inequality while military spending does the opposite, but funding for “national defense” is a stalking horse for corporate bailouts that ultimately amounts to welfare for the 1 percent.
For example, 70 percent of Lockheed Martin’s total 2019 revenue came from Pentagon contracts, or recycled public funds. Most other major war corporations are similarly reliant on public subsidies. This is especially pernicious given the war industry’s annual expenditures on campaign contributions, lobbying, and think tanks.
The Left needs to force Democrats to get comfortable with using the annual “national security” bill as a way to extract concessions from what might be a Republican-held Senate. To be sure, money for social programs need not require an encounter with the military budget. But it may be the only recourse we have left to align federal spending priorities with working-class interests.