In his farewell address on January 17, 1961, Dwight D. Eisenhower, 34th President of the United States, highlighted the dangers of the "military-industrial complex." He warned that the central role of defense contractors in government decision-making essentially guarantees unchecked military expansion and exploding budgets.
Many leaders in the White House and Congress have since committed to dismantling the Pentagon’s influence machine. Yet 60 years later, the U.S. is still fighting the same battle with itself.
The Biden administration is the latest to take up the challenge. Vowing to “build back better” in the wake of Covid-19, our 46th President appears to be following advice from Winston Churchill: “Never let a good crisis go to waste.” Biden seems poised to leverage Americans’ post-pandemic appetite for positive government interventions to address issues ranging from childcare to the nation’s crumbling infrastructure.
A price tag comes attached to each of these ambitions, of course. Infrastructure alone could cost over $2 trillion. In this light, the inflated Pentagon budget should be a prime target for spending offsets.
Unfortunately, recent reports indicate that Biden’s efforts to reduce corporate sway over the nation’s defense dollars have been inadequate, at least so far.
This is not to deny some real progress in his first 100 days in the Oval Office. One of Biden’s early executive orders included a slate of ethics rules tougher than President Barack Obama’s much-heralded restrictions on lobbying by former government officials. In fact, analysis from the Project On Government Oversight on Biden’s ethics order shows that Biden’s is the strongest yet. However, we cannot leave critical anti-corruption reforms to the president alone if we want them to last.
Much like Obama before him, Biden has frequently operated in the gray areas of his own restrictions. While not hiring lobbyists per se, the administration has brought on numerous individuals one might refer to as lobbying-adjacent.
For instance, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin was, until recently, on the board of directors for Raytheon. In the Obama-Biden interregnum, Secretary of State Antony Blinken co-founded and operated a company counseling the likes of Boeing. And Kathleen Hicks, now Deputy Secretary of Defense, left the contractor-funded think tank, Center for Strategic and International Studies, when she returned to public service this year.
The optics may be slightly better than under Trump, but the ethics are still not good enough. When people with deep ties to the defense industry, whatever form those ties may take, cycle into government jobs—and when the Pentagon’s civilian and military leaders eye such lucrative positions as their next career step—taxpayers suffer from budgetary boondoggles. A strong ethics executive order is a good start, but Congress needs to pass laws to close the loopholes that allow corporate capture to continue.
Need an example? Look no further than the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. Already two decades in development, the F-35 is the most expensive weapon system ever built, but you’d never know from its performance. It’s barely ready to fight and almost too expensive to fly. The Air Force’s highest officer has called it a “Ferrari” to be used sparingly.
The total cost: $1.7 trillion.
That’s almost enough to pay for Biden’s entire Covid-19 relief package. But in a hearing last month on the F-35, military representatives and congressional leaders showed little sign they’d say “no” to Lockheed Martin’s excesses.
Americans are tired of this behavior. They’re sick of seeing cutbacks on education, housing, healthcare, and other essentials while the Pentagon receives a blank check. They’re frustrated when policymakers cite "fiscal responsibility" when refusing to help their families and communities but then abandon that principle when allowing the military to spend $435 on a hammer back in the 1980s or trillions on unnecessary weaponry today.
Biden’s many predecessors may have failed to slam shut the revolving door between the Defense Department and the defense industry, but the American people expect better from him. After all, it’s what he promised—and if this President wants the chance to enact his complete agenda, he’d better deliver.
Danielle Brian is Executive Director of the Project On Government Oversight (POGO), a nonpartisan independent government watchdog.