September 7, 2021

By: Adam DuBard

Since the end of World War II, the United States Congress has not officially declared war once, yet our nation consistently finds itself mired in armed conflicts around the globe. After a period of relative peace following the end of the Cold War, the September 11th attacks marked a massive shift in American defense policy, leading to the invasions of both Afghanistan and Iraq. These wars have been long, costly, and deadly.

According to the Costs of War Project at Brown University, more than 929,000 people have lost their lives as a result of the post-9/11 wars, including more than 387,000 civilians. The cost of these wars stands at around $8 trillion and will only increase as the United States continues to undertake counterterrorism operations in more than 85 countries.

Even after the withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan in August, the United States still maintains more than 700 military bases worldwide, which accounts for over 80% of all military bases around the globe. As of March 2021, these bases were manned by over 170,000 active troops, which is again the largest number of active troops deployed worldwide.

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So, how did we get here?

President Dwight Eisenhower has received plenty of attention over the years for his warning over the “military-industrial complex” in his farewell speech. Ironically enough, President Eisenhower was one of the presidents most responsible for advancing American military interventions, having approved two covert operations that resulted in coups of democratically-elected leaders in Guatemala and Iran. Ultimately however, his warning was not heeded, and the American military-industrial complex today is an incredibly powerful force in American politics.

Something you might not know about the military-industrial complex is just how integrated defense contractors are with American society. In the fiscal year of 2019, the Department of Defense (DOD) spent $550.9 billion on “contract obligations and payroll spending” in 50 states and the District of Columbia, according to the DOD’s own numbers. 73 percent, or $403.9 billion of that was spent on “contracts for products and services” awarded to defense contractors such as Lockheed Martin or Raytheon.

Defense contractors have operations in every state in the country, meaning they provide jobs and economic benefits to every state. That’s one of the reasons why so many members of Congress continue to approve massive defense budgets, in order to keep the funds flowing towards their constituents. No member wants to be held responsible for the loss of hundreds of jobs in their state.

The hit HBO show Veep portrayed this relationship between Congress and the military-industrial complex in its season four premiere. After negotiating a spending cut of $50 billion with military leaders by discontinuing an obsolete submarine program, President Selena Meyers, portrayed by Julia Louis-Dreyfus, is prepared to invest in her “Families First” act. However, at the last second, a group of Representatives come into her office to inform her that this plan is impossible, due to this submarine being made piece-by-piece in states across the country, which would mean job cuts and economic losses for all these representatives’ districts.

This is not just an HBO comedy scene; this happens in real life.

A 2012 report from the Dayton Daily News highlights numerous weapons that leaders at the Pentagon wished to discontinue, yet Congress funded anyway. The Pentagon wanted to save $3 billion by pausing the Abrams Tank program – instead Congress budgeted $250 million to keep the manufacturing plant open for business, which saved Ohio 800 jobs. Likewise, a cargo plane was deemed unnecessary by the Pentagon, which would have produced savings of $400 million. However, rather than risk shuttering an Air National Guard Base and potentially costing “hundreds of Guard jobs around the country,” Congress continued to fund this program.

In 2015, the Army Chief of Staff General Raymond Odierno informed Congress that the Army spends “hundreds of millions of dollars on tanks that we simply don't have the structure for anymore." Even as leaders at the Pentagon themselves inform Congress of ways to cut spending by ending obsolete weapons programs, Congress continues to fund these programs due to the benefits their districts receive.

However, as reporting from David Moore at Sludge details, many members of Congress are profiting from these defense contracts more directly. According to Sludge’s financial analysis, 47 members of Congress and their spouses have “between $2 million and $6.7 million worth of stock in companies that are among the top 100 defense contractors.”

Since September 2001, when military intervention in Afghanistan was approved by Congress, the stocks of the top five defense companies have risen in value by an average of 900%. For those lucky enough to own stock in these companies, these investments have surely paid off.

The conflict of interest here is quite clear. The same politicians who vote to authorize military interventions in foreign countries and who determine the Pentagon’s annual budget are themselves profiting from the defense industry. As is often the case with American corruption, this practice is a bipartisan exercise.

According to Sludge’s numbers, these 47 members of Congress include 11 Senators, five of whom are Democrats joined by six Republicans, and 36 House members, with 20 Republicans and 16 Democrats.

The numbers are eye popping. Sen. Roy Blunt (R-MO) holds $250,000 in Lockheed Martin stock, while Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) owns $500,000 in stock from Raytheon, Honeywell, and Lockheed Martin. Meanwhile in the House, Rep. Kevin Hern (R-OK) owns over $1 million in stock from Boeing, Honeywell, Lockheed Martin, and Raytheon, and Rep. Debbie Dingell (D-MI) holds $500,000 in Honeywell and Raytheon stock. Notably, Democratic Rep. Ro Khanna of California, who has been a vocal proponent of cutting defense spending, holds $165,000 in defense stocks with his spouse.

As the advocacy group Win Without War’s Washington director Erica Fein told Moore, “It is a profound conflict of interest, and shameful moral failing, that those who profit off of war hold any influence in our political system at all.”

As long as Members of Congress are allowed to buy and sell stocks however, these conflicts of interest will remain, and the American people will suffer the consequences.

Now is the time to act!

A bipartisan group of Senators and House members introduced the Ban Conflicted Trading Act in March of 2021, a bill which would ban members of Congress from buying and selling individual stocks.

Add your name now to urge Congress to pass the Ban Conflicted Trading Act.

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