- Interview by
- Luke Savage
In what’s ostensibly a uniquely polarized country, nothing is more bipartisan than lavish spending on the United States’ bloated military. Regardless of who controls Congress or which president occupies the White House, the Pentagon has become an insatiable maw into which the federal treasury is annually emptied.
On his new Substack Speaking Security, writer and researcher Stephen Semler has been meticulously tracking the corporate dollars and congressional votes that undergird the near-ironclad bipartisan consensus on increasing military spending in perpetuity.
Jacobin spoke to Semler about his work, the finer points of America’s ever-expanding military budget, and the deep corruption at its core.
First, tell us a bit about Speaking Security. What’s its backstory, and what are you aiming to do with it?
Initially, my purpose was to advise congressional primary challengers to Democratic incumbents by providing foreign policy advisory services. Because where else are they going to find actual foreign policy advice? I mean, Jacobin’s a good place to start if you ask me! But I’m talking mainly about real time, very quick, down-to-the-bones facts that they can deploy.
One way to do that is basically to follow the money. Which isn’t a new concept, obviously, but what I wanted the newsletter to do is provide it as a service to congressional progressives who are trying to take seats away from members who are standing in the way in one form or another — whether it be those in leadership positions or just entrenched incumbents with a lot of money.
Eventually, word got out about it, and now anyone can subscribe. So, I kind of changed it to be less tailored to primary and congressional candidates, and now it’s also for organizers and a general audience as well. To that end, I tend to publish material that’s very quick, digestible, and reader-friendly, because we all have a lot to read.
The catalyst for your most recent Substack post was an amendment put forward by representatives Barbara Lee and Mark Pocan that aims to reduce Pentagon spending. Can you tell us a bit about what Lee and Pocan are trying to do? And what are the amendment’s prospects, as things stand?
So, the amendment concerns this year’s NDAA (National Defense Authorization Act, the military policy bill). The military budget, as we know it, is sort of a two-step process in Congress. One is the authorizations, and one is the appropriations. The NDAA sets the top-line amount. It tells the DOD (Department of Defense) what it can and cannot do, but for the purposes of this conversation and the military budget, it generally sets the top-line amount and also says that DOD can spend no more than X on Y or no more than Y on Z. So, it effectively delimits the budget.
Joe Biden initially proposed a budget that was $12 billion higher than Donald Trump’s last year. Since then, two congressional committees — the House Armed Services Committee and the Senate Armed Services Committee — each added nearly $25 billion on top of it. So, we’re now $37 billion over last year in nominal terms. Military spending per year from Barack Obama’s last budget to Trump’s last budget increased $120 billion per year, so spending is incredibly high now.
Now, the amendment that Mark Pocan and Barbara Lee put forth is the same one that they did last year. It would take 10 percent of that $778 billion and just return it to the treasury. And it would apply to all funding accounts except for military personnel, the defense health program, and federal civilian employee pay — which is, you know, maximally considerate because, as we tear down empire, we want to be maximally considerate to the working class and working folks in general.
The amendment got ninety-three votes last year. Justin Amash from Michigan, who’s no longer in Congress, was the only sort of right-leaning member of Congress to vote for it. There are eighty-five members of that ninety-three still in Congress who ran for reelection, and all eighty-five are back in Congress. In other words, members who voted for it didn’t suffer electorally from it at all. So, that’s encouraging. But the goal for this year is to get new members on. And obviously, Jamaal Bowman replacing Eliot Engel is a step forward. Marie Newman’s in there. Cori Bush will be an assured vote, most definitely. But the basic story of Congress is that our best members are just too few in number. So, we have to figure out ways to help them punch above their weight on the issues they care about. And again: the American public is supportive of cutting the defense budget, for sure.
But there’s a class divide and an elite divide, too (which itself can mostly be explained by class). I don’t know if there’s ever been a study of what sort of media members of Congress consume. But, if you think about it, they receive Politico and the Hill every morning, both of which get funding from weapons manufacturers. During hearings and expert testimony, they call in representatives from think tanks who overwhelmingly take government or weapons manufacturer money. Among the top twenty companies as ranked by lobbying expenditures last year, five were weapons manufacturers. I think the strategy going forward is to highlight just how much different the overall congressional opinion is versus that of the general public. It’s very similar to what we saw recently with Afghanistan with the utter hysterics in the mainstream media, even as the public overwhelmingly backed withdrawal.
In any case, we just don’t have enough votes, and we have to accept that. We have to realize that we’re not going to win members over by politely talking them into it. The goal is just to win votes, and we have to distinguish between the members who are irreconcilable versus those who can be talked into it. And for the ones we can’t talk into it, we’re going to have to basically bully them and cultivate public support. Some members just have a bad policy outlook and aren’t bought off by the industry, which is ultimately an education problem.
We have to encourage the rank and file of Congress to break away from the leadership, which usually takes more money from weapons manufacturers. I really want to see the Squad use their star power to make the case that the NDAA process, the military budget process, is corruption in its purest form. A Brown University study that just came out found that a third to a half of Pentagon spending since September 11 went to private sector contracts. (In my own analysis, I found that 54 percent went to private sector contracts.)
These weapons manufacturers are deeply reliant on government contracts. In the case of Lockheed Martin, for example, 74 percent of their business came solely from government contracts last year. Over half the Pentagon budget goes to contracts, and around 30 percent goes to the top five weapons manufacturers. One basic definition of corruption is the use of public funds for private gains, and this is pretty much a textbook case.
I hope to help stigmatize campaign contributions, too, because, while there’s plenty of talk about Congress writing legislation that favors tax breaks to big donors and that kind of thing, Congress in this case is quite literally giving money to these corporations, and those corporations are giving it straight back. So, I hope not only to inform strategy in Congress but also influence the broader public by driving home the corruption at the core of all of this.
Another recent post of yours runs through how House Republicans and Democrats voted on the last eight Pentagon budgets. What patterns did you identify here, and what would you say the prospects for a long-term reduction in the Pentagon budget look like — particularly given the recent withdrawal from Afghanistan?
Well, it seems like Biden just reinvested his planned savings from Afghanistan back into the DOD budget, given his $12 billion increase in the president’s budget. Congress obviously has the same thing in mind given that they just upped it again (or at least the committees did) — by $25 billion. So, really, the plan of the establishment is to reinvest in empire, and, starting in 2018, there was purportedly a shift from an official end to the “war on terror” to what was called “great power competition.” This was established in a slew of documents, most notably the 2018 National Defense Strategy, which is mindless bullshit. On page five, it quite literally said that the surest way to prevent war is to prepare to win one. Which is obviously nonsense, because if country A spends more on their military, country B will perceive that as a threat and will spend more on its military to follow suit. The difference between being anti-war and being anti-imperialist consists in opposing these military budgets, because the budgets are what give empire life.
I think a big problem with Biden’s approach, which adopts the framework of great power competition, is that he’s treating the threat from non-democracies like China and Russia, which are now at the center of our national security strategy, as a bigger threat than climate change. Our strategy should be to create favorable conditions for the United States and China to come to a massive agreement on climate and lead the world towards a green transformation. That’s the sort of strategy we ought to see, and the link between the climate movement and the anti-imperialist movement can be one that centers on that.
Cribbing from the climate movement, we need to make the case for converting our war economy. The environmental movement has this notion of a just transition, and we should be talking about converting the war economy to a green one, because there’s tremendous talent and expertise — the manufacturing sector of the weapons industry has researchers, people who are experts. You’ve got a whole range of people who are in that sector because it’s the only job available. And I think we can create more opportunities by engaging unions and pushing for a broader transformation of the war economy into a green economy.
That starts with cutting the military budget.