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The Pentagon’s budget request for 2024 is already out, and it clocks in at a massive — brace yourself — $886.4 billion. That initial request is up nearly $30 billion from the 2023 budget. And if recent years serve as a harbinger of things to come, that number is bound to inflate even further when the budget goes through Congress. Just last year, Congress tacked an additional $45 billion on to the Pentagon’s initial request. If we continue down the same path this year, we’ll be knocking on the dreaded doorstep of the “watershed”$1 trillion defense budget. To illustrate the immensity of that figure: At the median salary, it would take the average American close to 25 million years to make that much money.
I know that’s an absurd comparison, but it illustrates the absurdity of this situation. We’re spending crazy money on defense, and a needlessly bloated Pentagon budget doesn’t make us any safer. That’sbecause national security interests aren’t always guiding spending decisions — defense contractors and their lobbyists often are. A revolving door between defense contractors and the DOD has spun our defense spending out of control. Let’s examine how.
In this edition:
- One door closes, another one opens
- What money can (and can’t) buy
- The urgent need to slow this merry-go-round
Late last month, POGO Executive Director Danielle Brian testified to the Senate on this issue. To watch or listen to her testimony, visit the Senate website, or read the written testimony on pogo.org.
Here, the term “revolving door” refers to the movement of DOD personnel from their civilian or military jobs in the federal government to positions with defense companies that have contracts with the Pentagon. Last year, 672 people working for the top 20 defense contractors (Lockheed Martin, Boeing, Raytheon, General Dynamics, Pfizer, and the like) had previously worked as government officials, military officers, members of Congress, or legislative staff.
These former government employees take on roles as lobbyists, board members, and executives for private defense companies. Lobbyist is the most common position. In instances we tracked back in 2018, almost 90% of those who moved through the revolving door became registered lobbyists, where, as then-Director for the Center for Defense Information at POGO Mandy Smithberger put it succinctly, “the operational skill is influence-peddling.”
According to data tracked by OpenSecrets, between 2011 and 2022, “more than three-quarters of defense sector lobbyists previously worked in the federal government.” These lobbyists leverage their personal relationships and insider knowledge of defense spending and contracting to sway military decisions in their companies’ favor. That’s sizeable influence — and sizeable impact — that we simply can’t ignore.
Who holds the gold makes the rules
Industry-backed lobbyists have had enormous sway over defense decision-making. In Danielle’s testimony, she walked us through an example from just last year where lobbyists managed to convince Congress to block the Navy’s plan to retire some expensive, poorly functioning littoral combat ships. The defense industry’s mobilization to keep their Freedom-class littoral combat ships afloat demonstrates, in so many ways, how agile these lobbyists are and how their credibility as former DOD employees can have enormous influence, often undermining the needs of the troops.
But this is, of course, not a standalone incident. Whole programs — like the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, the Zumwalt-class destroyer, and the Ford-class supercarrier — have legacies of failure but have not been retired, despite being a waste of time, money, and effort, not to mention a threat to troops’ safety. The billions sunk into these programs did not buy functional weaponry. We’re left with a near-trillion-dollar defense budget that serves to line contractors’ pockets (and stack their payroll).
Time to lock the door
Ex-federal employees should be able to have careers after leaving the government, but there needs to be better guardrails in place for positions like these. There aren’t currently sufficient restrictions on lobbying the Pentagon as an ex-DOD employee, and that’s made it so corporate interests have an outsized say in defense matters.
Congress has known about the notorious revolving door and the extent of its nefarious influence for decades now. They can take steps to slow the revolving door, starting by strengthening lobbying restrictions, extending and expanding recusal obligations, and closing the loopholes that allow high-ranking former DOD employees to evade post-employment rules.
The revolving door has let in a lot of undue influence on matters that should be treated with the utmost seriousness and tact. Slowing the revolving door is the first step to grounding our priorities — and spending — in reality, and not in absurdity.