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Kennedy, Cranston, and Downey: How a Dove Becomes a Hawk

If you want to understand why defense critics are mobilizing for war in a time of peace, take a look in the federal pork barrel

Ted Kennedy, Hollywood Paladium

Ted Kennedy at Hollywood Paladium in Hollywood, California on August 2nd, 1983.

Ron Galella/WireImage/Getty

While everyone blames our superhawk president and his conservative allies for America’s runaway defense budgets, the sorry little secret is that liberals like to build weapons, too. In fact, if the leading doves in Congress wanted to declare war, they could deploy a mighty army, equipped entirely with their own favorite engines of destruction.

Senator Carl Levin of Michigan, for instance, might lead the attack with his marvelous M-1 tank, the one that gets stuck in mud, needs repairs every forty-three miles and costs the taxpayers $2.5 million apiece. Levin’s devotion to the tank presumably is unrelated to the fact that it is manufactured in Warren, Michigan.

Meanwhile, Senator Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts, leader of the nuclear-freeze campaign, could deploy his own favorite air defense system, the Patriot missile. Kennedy stood by the Patriot even when tests proved its accuracy to be notoriously unreliable. Perhaps he believes in this surface-to-air missile because it is built by his constituents at the Raytheon plant on Route 128 outside Boston.

Representative Tom Downey of New York, another eloquent voice for rational defense spending, could fly air support in the Navy’s F-14, a $35 million carrier fighter crafted at the Grumman plant in Bethpage, Long Island, where many of Downey’s constituents work. When Grumman contracts are at stake, a dove like Downey can be as zealous as a hawk.

Senator Alan Cranston of California, the former presidential candidate who made peace his single issue, surely would bomb the bejesus out of the enemy with the B-1 bomber, manufactured in Southern California by Rockwell. Flying copilot would be Senator Howard Metzenbaum of Ohio, a savage critic of the Pentagon who, nevertheless, takes a dive when the B-1 comes up for a roll call. Key elements of the bomber are made in Cincinnati and Columbus. At the same time, Senator Dale Bumpers of Arkansas might be on the ground spraying the battlefield with nerve gas. This hideous stuff is concocted by native Arkansans in Pine Bluff.

Tanks that only work on paved roads, missiles that don’t shoot straight, bombers that aren’t needed to defend the country–these are some of the weapons systems embraced, promoted and protected by men and women in Congress who are identified as defense critics. For the most part, all of them struggle earnestly to rein in the Pentagon and its greed-crazed contractors, and their voting records put them consistently on the side of sanity–for arms control, for smaller military budgets.

Unless, of course, the issue is hometown jobs. Then they go in for the same political dealing normally associated with conservative hawks, lobbying and logrolling to keep favorite weapons funded and constituents working in defense plants.

I am not picking on these liberals merely to expose hypocrisy, though the hypocrisy is rich enough. My point is this: the entire political system, including liberals as well as conservatives, is held hostage by the politics of defense spending. Even the most well intentioned are captive to it. And this is a fundamental reason why the Pentagon budget is irrationally bloated and why America is mobilizing for war in a time of peace.

“It’s a fact of life,” said one arms-control lobbyist. “I don’t see how you can ask members of Congress to vote against their own districts. If I were a member of Congress, I might vote that way, too.”

If you think of Pentagon procurement not as national security but as the federal government’s most savory pork barrel, you will begin to grasp why senators and representatives, no matter what their political stripe, compete so zealously to bring home the bacon.

You will also understand Senator Levin’s contradictory actions. Levin is a smart, hard-working member of the Armed Services Committee who understands the intricacies of the Pentagon budget and whose sensibilities have led him to oppose the nuclear-arms buildup. Last year, he scored 100 percent on the arms-control index compiled by the Council for a Livable World. The M-1 tank, however, makes Levin sound a little Prussian.

Every year, he lobbies his colleagues to increase the order for tanks from Michigan–even more tanks than President Reagan has requested. This year, the army cut its order to 600 new tanks, but Levin won authorization for 720. He’s still fighting for 840. That adds up to a lot of extra bucks for General Dynamics and the workers back home.

Senator Kennedy took the lead this year on a more homely national defense issue–lobbying the navy to make Boston the home port for the Iowa battleship group. With five or six ships plus logistical staff and overhauling facilities, the basing of a major naval group would mean millions of dollars in new payroll. Kennedy organized a round-robin letter signed by the Massachusetts delegation and personally made the pitch to Secretary of the Navy John Lehman.

There was only one problem: some of the active peace groups in Kennedy’s home state thought it bizarre that the leading advocate of a nuclear-weapons freeze would be pushing to locate ships armed with nukes in Boston harbor. Kennedy limply answered that as long as there had to be a navy, it might as well do business in Boston.

So it was not for want of trying that Boston lost the Iowa battleship group to New York. But thanks to heavy pressure from another liberal who has more clout with the Pentagon, Representative Joe Addabbo of New York, the Iowa will be based on Staten Island.

Addabbo, chairman of the House appropriations subcommittee on defense, plays a heavy hand on many defense questions, from keeping the production of the A-10 attack plane alive for Fairchild Industries (though the military services didn’t want any more) to pushing the army to base its new infantry division at Fort Drum, New York. Some congressional defense analysts figured all along that the navy was just toying with Boston on the fight over the Iowa–and that it enjoyed the spectacle of Kennedy’s lobbying for Pentagon favors.

Massachusetts lost the Iowa, but it won another victory this year that may deliver more dollars and jobs. Though it’s not clear what Kennedy contributed to the decision, the senator sent out a press release this spring, announcing, with pride, that the air force would henceforth adopt “dual sourcing” for procurement of engines for the F-16 fighter plane. In plain language, this means that the General Electric plant in Lynn will get to share the business with Pratt & Whitney in East Hartford, Connecticut, which used to have a production monopoly. The competition is supposed to promote efficiency and lower costs. “A confluence of good management and good politics,” a Kennedy defense aide boasted.

The principle of competition was abandoned by the Massachusetts delegation, however, when the issue of dual sourcing of turbine engines for the M-1 tank was raised. All of them are now built at the AVCO Lycoming plant in Stratford, Connecticut, but another company in Arizona wanted a share. Led by Representative Nick Mavroules, the Massachusetts delegation lined up solidly against dual sourcing and helped defeat it. When they aren’t competing with one another for defense contracts, the New England state delegations stick together.

The underlying politics of defense procurement, as every major contractor understands, is no different from that of other big-ticket items in the federal pork barrel, like dams, post offices and highways. Despite all the wasted dollars and concrete poured into many of these projects, they survive congressional scrutiny year after year because everyone knows the rules of the game: if you vote against my district’s boondoggle, I’ll vote against yours.

In defense contracting, the game becomes more complicated as the Pentagon and private industry spread around work to enough states and congressional districts to broaden political support and buy out the opposition. A classic example is Rockwell’s B-1 bomber, which was declared dead in 1977 by Jimmy Carter. But the B-1 came back to life in the Reagan administration’s defense budget, and Congress happily endorsed it.

This year, it will require $6.9 billion for research, development and initial production.

Rockwell spread the gravy around–more than 5000 subcontracts in 48 states, according to Gordon Adams, a leading analyst of defense budgets at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. The major subcontracts can switch key votes, miraculously converting staunch critics of Pentagon waste into faithful advocates of the B-1. In Knoxville, Tennessee, AVCO makes the wing sections. In Dallas, Texas, LTV builds the tail fuselage. Avionics is done by Eaton Corporation in Long Island. Engines, by GE in Cincinnati. Aluminum forgings, by Alcoa in Cleveland. Main assembly, by Rockwell in Palmdale, California, and Columbus, Ohio. This geographic distribution brings aboard liberal senators such as Metzenbaum and Cranston, James Sasser of Tennessee and Patrick Moynihan of New York, plus a long list of House members, especially from Southern California. All of them, of course, would deny they are voting on hometown jobs.

Sometimes, old liberal allies find themselves on opposite sides of the barricades in these struggles. When Northrop’s new fighter plane wasn’t picked up by the air force in the mid-1970s, the company simply redesigned the plane for the navy, called it the F-18 and dispersed the production artfully–engines from General Electric in Lynn, Massachusetts, air frames built both at the Northrop plant in Hawthorne, California, and at McDonnell Douglas in St. Louis.

But the navy was already buying another fighter plane, the F-14, which had its own political base (Pratt & Whitney built engines in Connecticut, Grumman built the frames in New York) and its own liberal supporters (New York’s Addabbo and Senator Chris Dodd of Connecticut, among others).

These two groups battled ferociously for several years over which airplane the navy should buy. Ronald Reagan, of all people, showed them the way to sweet compromise. Reagan added two more aircraft carriers to defense plans, which meant the navy would need dozens of additional planes. So the navy is now buying both the F-14 and the F-18–more than $4.6 billion of gravy next year. Dams and post offices would be a lot cheaper.

***

Occasionally, Senators and Representatives rise above the parochial pressures and vote against weapons systems that would bring jobs to their constituents. This year, Representative Mavroules, New England’s only member on the House Armed Services Committee and, therefore, a key player in protecting his region’s defense contracts, successfully led the fight against the MX missile in the House. He did this even though Massachusetts stands to gain nearly 7,000 jobs in direct contracts and thousands more in indirect economic expansion if the MX goes forward.

“Yes, we want our people to work,” Mavroules told his colleagues during the MX debate, “but a $20 billion program is too high a price to pay for a few thousand jobs.”

Mavroules heard from home. Workers at the AVCO plant in Wilmington, Massachusetts, where they would build the MX’s reentry vehicle, complained by petition that he was anti-Massachusetts. Sylvania Systems in Westboro circulated background data showing that Massachusetts would rank second among states in MX contracts and claiming a total of 23,000 jobs.

But the entire Massachusetts delegation in the House and Senate voted against it.

Why? Because it is a rotten weapons system. Because strong and well-organized peace groups lobbied effectively against deployment. And because the MX hasn’t reached full production, so the new jobs it promises have not yet materialized.

Everyone knows it’s easier to vote against a weapon while it’s still on the drawing board; once it’s in production, only the brave or the foolish will vote to abolish jobs back home.

***

Breaking up this political tangle of weapons and jobs would be extraordinarily difficult, perhaps impossible. As a crude rule of thumb, $1 billion in defense spending will produce about 21,000 jobs. These are good jobs, too: high-salaried engineers and other technicians, plus thousands of jobs for machinists and metal fabricators–the best of blue-collar employment. Of course, if the government spent $1 billion on peaceful enterprises like roads or schools, the money would actually produce more jobs.

According to calculations by Data Resources, nondefense spending will generate 25,000 new jobs per $ 1 billion–4000 more jobs than if the money were to move through the military-industrial complex. Considering that defense procurement will top $150 billion next year, that could mean a loss in employment for the country.

When the question of defense jobs is put that way, it appears an easy choice of priorities for politicians–more nondefense spending means more jobs. The trouble is, the question never gets framed that way in the political arena. Senator Kennedy is not given a choice between the Patriot missile and a new junior college for Massachusetts. Senator Levin doesn’t get to decide whether a quarter of a billion dollars will build an extra 100 tanks or instead build new housing in the slums of Detroit.

The Pentagon and the defense industry always present the budget issues as a battle for dollars between competing weapons systems or different regions of the country, between funding jobs in your hometown or someone else’s. Money that is not spent on Senator Levin’s tanks will instead be spent on Senator Cranston’s bomber or Congressman Addabbo’s fighter planes. Faced with that dilemma, most elected representatives will always vote for the hometown jobs.

The fundamental problem, the one few are willing to face, is that the American economy is addicted to arms building, and has been since World War II. Periodically, thoughtful liberals like Mavroules propose legislation to encourage the conversion of the defense industrial base to other forms of production, but these ideas never seem to get anywhere.

Various studies have demonstrated, for instance, that the United States has excess industrial capacity in key defense sectors, particularly in airplane construction. This guarantees that the major companies, even in times of rising defense budgets, will try to keep their production lines busy by scrambling to invent next year’s marvelous new weapon and hustling gullible generals and congressmen on its virtues.

The Pentagon is, of course, an eager accomplice in this charade, rotating contracts from one company to another in order to keep all of them alive and to keep the major defense plants active. (Most of those factories, by the way, are owned by the federal government and leased to the contractors.)

It would be nice to imagine that reason and courage will someday force the politicians to confront the monstrous wastefulness and misplaced priorities of the defense industry. I think it is more likely that if anything ever brings this system down, it will be chaos, as the contractors and generals choke on their own greed.

The Reagan defense plans, blessed by Congress, have committed the government to buy more weapons than it can possibly pay for–even with Reagan’s escalating Pentagon budgets.

By 1985, the Defense Department will have accumulated a backlog of more than $238 billion in spending authority that it hasn’t yet spent. The competition for weapons dollars will become very intense next year when Congress tries simultaneously to reduce the huge federal deficit and also to find the money to pay for all of these new tanks and ships and planes it has ordered.

Perhaps that budget crisis will force the cozy system to break down. I hope the political infighting gets very nasty and the deal making disintegrates in bloody squabbles. I hope tens of thousands of disappointed defense workers turn their anger on congressional sponsors. And I hope some defense contractors go bankrupt when their lobbyists fail to deliver their share of the pork.

This is a lot to hope for, but it is probably the only way the nation will awake to the reality. One by one, politicians must be compelled to recognize that when they win their little battles over favorite weapons, everyone loses.

In This Article: Coverwall, Politics

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