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Here’s Why the Pentagon Won the Debt Limit Deal

A little-known Pentagon dataset sheds light on the defense industry’s parochial political power.

Words: Taylor Barnes
Pictures: Huntington Ingalls Industries

It’s been easy to get lost in the weeds of the Biden-McCarthy budget negotiations of recent weeks or to just tune out altogether. The deal struck between the White House and the Republican leader, passed by both chambers of Congress and signed into law by the president on Saturday, came to a pretty predictable end. While many things that keep citizens healthy, prosperous, and safe — like medical research, education, and worker protection — are on the chopping block, spending on defense contractors, weapons, and the military are not, because the latter comes from a “magic money tree.” (I’m borrowing that phrase from a British defense industry worker who spoke recently with a US-UK academic team probing attitudes about budgets and priorities among the military-industrial complex’s workforce. You can read more about the team’s remarkable findings here.)

Data guru Stephen Semler at “Speaking Security” has broken down how, under the Biden-McCarthy deal, so-called “nonsecurity” initiatives will receive $56 billion less in 2024 than in 2023, while the Pentagon gets $28 billion more. (And even more may be on the way) It can be hard to comprehend the enormousness of the national security budget, a number that’s approaching a trillion dollars. My favorite superlative to contextualize that figure is this: The United States already spends more on defense than the next top ten militaries combined.

In this tiresome moment — in which the largest expenditure in the US discretionary budget is the one that gets a boost in a would-be fiscal responsibility deal — a favorite cheatsheet of mine can shed light on why this happened. It helps explain why Congress, with its power of the purse, boosts the Pentagon to the detriment of all else. And the cheatsheet comes from the Pentagon itself.

It helps explain why Congress, with its power of the purse, boosts the Pentagon to the detriment of all else. And the cheatsheet comes from the Pentagon itself.

The Office of Local Defense Community Cooperation (OLDCC) is the descendent of an agency whose mission was to wean American towns off dependence on military spending, beginning in the post-Vietnam days. You can read more about the history of what was once called the Office of Economic Adjustment in this 2018 article, “The Little Agency that Could Have Tamed the Military-Industrial Complex,” by policy scholar Miriam Pemberton.

Though the OLDCC has strayed from its original mission, it still produces a fantastic resource for Pentagon watchers, a list of state profiles that quantify states’ and counties’ reliance on military spending. The profiles also give you a quick introduction to the major defense contractors in your area and an overview of how many and where military personnel are based in your state.

Here’s how those profiles come in handy. Why would, say, a Republican senator from Mississippi call the debt ceiling deal a “disaster” (performatively messaging his fiscal responsibility bona fides, as though the bill did not cut those “non-security” items enough) while also calling the largest military budget in history “woefully inadequate and disappointing”? I’m a field reporter who covers the defense industry through the lens of workforces and towns tied up in it. My first instinct, therefore, is to hear his comments in parochial terms: His state, the poorest in the United States, is highly dependent on Pentagon spending as a portion of its state GDP. According to the OLDCC, it’s the ninth-most dependent in the country.

Similarly, a Republican congressman from neighboring Alabama told the New York Times last week that the “basic position” of “most” of his party’s members was that any cut to military spending “sends a bad message” to the likes of Russia and China. I checked the OLDCC when I read his comments: His state’s economy is the sixth-most reliant on military spending. The state is also the country’s sixth-most impoverished.

In those contexts, defense spending looks more like a federal jobs program for poor, rural areas than a national security project. Pemberton, the policy scholar, has delved into that phenomenon. In a study of dozens of military-industrial strongholds, she found that, rather than prosperity, those localities were associated with poverty rates exceeding the national average.

That brings me to a wildly costly rural federal jobs program in the country’s ninth-most impoverished state, South Carolina — and its champion, Sen. Lyndsey Graham (R-S.C.), who told Fox News that Biden’s Pentagon budget was “a joke” that does not “fully [fund] the military.”

South Carolina’s reliance on weapons spending won’t be fully apparent in its OLDCC profile. That rural jobs program I mentioned is a 310-square-mile nuclear weapons complex called the Savannah River Site, and it’s funded by the Department of Energy. In recent years, it was the home of a failed project to turn nuclear weapons into power plant fuel that one of Graham’s fellow Republicans dubbed “the biggest, baddest earmark of all time.” The plant (known as MOX) never powered a single lightbulb, despite $5.4 billion being sunk into its construction before the federal government pulled the plug in 2018. I covered the demise of MOX for Craftsmanship Quarterly and estimated that each job on the short-lived project cost about $3 million to create. Since then, Graham, whom locals nicknamed “Mr. MOX” for his close association with the earmark, has backed a plan to tear down and repurpose the building site as a nuclear bomb plant.

Plenty of locals have been calling foul on this latest iteration of a federal jobs program. “Who are you fooling? You didn’t do nothing with MOX fuel factory,” a pastor told a Department of Energy public hearing in North Augusta in 2019. “Set your goals on something that’s better than killing one another.”

In the kind of towns where I report, I come across remarkable people who, like the pastor, speak plainly about the military-industrial behemoths in their midst. Our press coverage could do so, too. As a journalist, here’s how I propose framing the congressman’s quote in the New York Times last week, using a format I’d like to see become more routine:

“It just sends a bad message, and Republicans feel like it would not be in our best interest to cut spending at this juncture when you’re looking at China and Russia and a lot of instability around the world,” said Representative Robert B. Aderholt, Republican of Alabama, a state that’s both the sixth poorest in the country and the sixth-most economically dependent on military spending. The representative also sits on an Appropriations panel that oversees Pentagon spending…

Featured image: Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss., second from right) visits a shipyard used by Huntington Ingalls Industries, the largest defense contractor in Mississippi.

Taylor Barnes

Field Reporter

Taylor Barnes in Inkstick Media's field reporter for military affairs and the defense industry. She is a grantee with the Ploughshares Fund and is based in Atlanta. Follow her work at @tkbarnes. Tips?


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