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Will Ties to Pentagon Contractors Push 'Supercommittee' Democrats to Cut Entitlements?


By Nick Turse, AlterNet

Arizona’s Republican Senator Jon Kyl wasted little time. A member of the bipartisan Congressional “supercommittee” charged with finding $1.5 trillion in deficit reductions, he did his best to forestall even discussion of cuts to the Pentagon’s budget. “When we had our first meeting the chairman asked, ‘Well what do we think about defense spending?’ and I said, ‘I’m off of the committee if we’re gonna talk about further defense spending,’” he told the audience at a recent forum sponsored by several conservative think tanks.

The Senate Minority Whip may be the most outspoken member of the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction when it comes to the military budget, but the Democrats currently considering whether to cut the deficit via reductions in defense spending or programs like Medicare and Medicaid have received far more money from Pentagon contractors than Kyl or any of their Republican colleagues on the panel, according to an investigation by AlterNet, with assistance from the Brave New Foundation and  Salon.com.

Since 2007, Democrats on the supercommittee have received more than $1 million in defense industry donations, while contributions to the Republicans added up to only $321,000. Panel co-chair Senator Patty Murray, for example, has received more defense industry dollars over that period than the combined total of the top four Republican recipients on the super committee. Even so, her haul from the Pentagon’s weapons-makers isn’t the largest by a panel Democrat, a distinction held by her colleague from South Carolina, John Clyburn.

An analysis of official government data paints a disturbing picture of big money, cozy relationships and potential influence that, alongside a concerted lobbying effort by the Pentagon and its powerful defense contractors, makes substantial reductions to the Department of Defense’s budget improbable and steeper cuts to entitlement programs, like Medicare and Medicaid, more likely.

Line in the Sand

A product of the legislation passed to raise the federal debt ceiling this summer, the supercommittee -- six members of the House and six from the Senate -- must come up with a plan to slash federal deficits by about $1.5 trillion over the next decade, and do so by November 23. If the panel fails or if its proposals are rejected by the full congress, it will trigger automatic spending cuts across the federal government -- a process called sequestration. 

At the moment, before the panel makes any decisions, the Department of Defense faces a likely “cut” of around $350 billion in funds over the next decade under a plan proposed by the White House that became part of the debt ceiling agreement. However, Salon contributor Winslow Wheeler and others have pointed out, those cuts are reductions in future spending increases -- not actual budget cuts in any normal sense. And this is where the Pentagon has drawn a line in the sand, likely with an eye toward a slightly larger figure which it will “grudgingly” accept.

As part of the Pentagon’s lobbying effort to cap the cuts, former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates recently warned that anything more than a $400 billion reduction would have a “catastrophic effect” on national security. When Senator John McCain asked General Martin Dempsey, the incoming chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff about a possible $800 billion decrease over 10 years, Dempsey replied, “I haven’t been asked to look at that number. But I have looked and we are looking at $400 [billion]…Based on the difficulty in [achieving] the $400 billion cut, I believe achieving $800 billion would be extraordinarily difficult and very high risk.” 

Not to be outdone, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta called $400 billion in cuts reasonable, but said a decrease of $600 billion, his estimate of the Pentagon’s additional loss in the event of sequestration, would lead to “dangerous cuts across the board -- defense cuts that I believe would do real damage to our security, our troops and their families, and our military’s ability to protect the nation.” 

At the same time that the Pentagon has been waging this scare-offensive, top defense contractors have launched a lobbying campaign, dubbed “Second to None,” in an attempt to mobilize average Americans to pressure their representatives to reject cuts to defense spending.  Using the twin specters of terrorism and the loss of manufacturing jobs, the campaign is far from subtle. 

“American leadership in aerospace and defense is being threatened by forces in Congress and the administration," the group's Web site warns. "The security of our troops, our technological future and our economic stability are all at risk. We must preserve jobs across the nation that keep our nation strong. Join us and act now before it is too late."

These efforts may, however, be mere window dressing compared with the industry’s most effective (and least acknowledged) everyday lobbying efforts, which are much less transparent than either the current Pentagon and industry campaigns.

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