For an example of the painfully transactional and conflicted nature of U.S. congressional committee assignments, consider the case of Democratic Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz. The new, Democrat-controlled House of Representatives was sworn in at the beginning of the month and leaders began handing out committee appointments. Wasserman Schultz, who represents parts of Broward and Miami-Dade Counties, was named to lead the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Military Construction and Veterans Affairs.
For years she's been a member of the committee, which handles a wide swath of government and military activity — from upgrading airfields in foreign countries to building military barracks on U.S. soil to overseeing the nearly $200 billion Veterans Affairs budget. And now she'll be the first woman to ever run it.
Sitting on any military-budgeting committee, of course, comes with a perk: tons of defense-industry donations. According to the donation-tracking website OpenSecrets.com, Wasserman Schultz (and her associated political action committee) have taken $159,735 from defense-industry sources since she entered Congress in 2005.
That $160,000 is a drop in the bucket compared to some other industries contributing to her war chest. She's taken $2.5 million from the finance and real estate sector over that same period, for example. And former Pennsylvania Rep. Charlie Dent, the Republican who previously chaired the committee, showed similar numbers. OpenSecrets reports he took $165,762 from defense-industry sources before retiring from Congress in 2018. It's difficult to find a centrist Democrat in Congress who hasn't accepted a good bit of cash from major military contractors.
But the money is significant enough to warrant questions about conflicts of interest. Spokespeople for Wasserman Schultz didn't respond to a message seeking comment. According to OpenSecrets, many of the top defense-industry contractors from which she's taken money — including General Dynamics, Lockheed Martin, Boeing, Northrop Grumman, and BAE Systems — regularly lobby the House military spending subcommittee. In fact, all those companies lobbied on H.R. 3219, the Military Construction, Veterans Affairs, and Related Agencies Appropriations Act of 2018.
Northrop Grumman, the massive, Virginia-based military contractor that builds everything from fighter jets to military IT systems to radar systems, appears to have chipped in roughly a quarter of Wasserman Schultz's defense-industry haul: OpenSecrets says she's taken $41,030 in donations to her campaign and her associated PAC since 2006. Meanwhile, government disclosures show Northrop Grumman lobbied her committee on HR 3219 on eleven occasions between 2017 and 2018.
General Dynamics has pitched in even more money — $59,500 to her campaign and PAC since 2006, according to OpenSecrets. Company representatives did the most lobbying on the 2018 military-construction appropriations act. (General Dynamics, which made $30 billion in revenue in 2017, builds everything from Abrams tanks to Howitzers to, again, IT systems for military bases.) In fact, Wasserman Schultz has been accused of having, at best, a "symbiotic" relationship with General Dynamics and, at worst, a corrupt alliance. In 2009, Harper's noted that General Dynamics donated about $10,000 to Wasserman Schultz's PAC in April 2008 while opening an office in her district. In Wasserman Schultz's 2010 budget appropriations request, the congresswoman then asked the government to hand over $9.7 million for a General Dynamics project to be run by the new Florida office.
"Multiply that process 535 times and you get a defense budget," reporter Ken Silverstein wrote at the time.
From a business perspective, it's clear why the defense industry would be lobbying the military-construction committee: The group signs off on large portions of defense-spending bills every year. In a 2017 press release, Wasserman Schultz wrote that the appropriations bill she supported that year helped to "make certain that many of our military’s infrastructure needs are addressed including the NATO Security Investment Program." As part of that program, the Defense Department routinely asks Congress for all sorts of equipment upgrades, from training-building renovations to better surveillance facilities to ammunition depots and fuel pipelines.
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In a June 2017 report to Congress, Dent, the former subcommittee chair, laid out the group's priorities for the 2018 fiscal year: The committee recommended spending $9.5 billion on military construction alone, as well as providing NATO with money to "cover facilities such as airfields, fuel pipelines and storage, harbors, communications and information systems, radar and navigational aids, and military headquarters, both within NATO nations and for 'out-of-area' operations such as Afghanistan."
As an example, Dent's report included requests for airfield upgrades at military facilities in Agadez, Niger. After four U.S. military members were ambushed and killed in Niger in 2018, including South Florida native La David Johnson, many critics of America's escalating military excursions overseas questioned why the United States even maintained a steady "anti-terror" presence in the African nation. In a massive, five-byline New York Times story following the Niger attacks, even Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham called the War on Terror an "endless war" with no clear goals or final purpose.
But endless global war does serve a purpose for military contractors: Defense-company stocks have climbed steadily since the War on Terror began nearly 20 years ago. When the "war" began under George W. Bush, analysts predicted that defense-industry profits would surge. That prediction came true and then some. (For instance, General Dynamics stock traded for about $40 per share back in 2001. Yesterday it was four times that.)
American arms dealers now run the federal government to an almost cartoonish degree: Donald Trump recently stated he would not take major action against Saudi Arabia for murdering a Washington Post journalist with a bone saw because he did not want to "jeopardize" the billions the Saudis spend on U.S.-made weapons. These companies make more money when there are more wars to fight and more military bases to build.
Wasserman Schultz has her own history of saber-rattling: She has, for example, repeatedly justified attacks on Syria executed by both Barack Obama and, astoundingly, Donald Trump. At a time when the American military holds virtually unstoppable global dominance, a rising crop of young Democratic officials
Wasserman Schultz seems to have a financial interest in avoiding that debate.