Campaign Finance Reform: A Matter of National Security

06/28/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Between now and October, Congress will authorize and appropriate money for the 2010 defense budget, for which the Obama Administration has requested $534 billion. With the federal deficit skyrocketing, the economy ailing and questions raised about some major weapons programs, both the president and the defense secretary have signaled a willingness to reform, if not reduce, Pentagon spending. But if history is any guide, the Obama Administration will fail in its effort to eliminate wasteful programs and kill individual weapons systems the military no longer needs.

One reason is because many of these defense programs directly benefit certain members of Congress, who see to it that Congress continues funding them year after year. Perhaps the most visible practitioner of earmarking spending for dubious defense programs is the chairman of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense, Rep. John Murtha (D-PA).

Rep. Murtha has received considerable press for adding so-called earmarks to defense spending bills that benefit large campaign contributors and sending no-bid contracts back to his district in Pennsylvania, many of questionable value to the taxpayer. A review of campaign finance data by Common Cause, however, shows that the practice of inserting earmarks on behalf of campaign contributors is far more widespread.

Just the 18 members of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense inserted more than $355 million in earmarks into the 2008 defense spending bill on behalf of their campaign contributors. Those contributors, according to campaign disclosure reports, donated a total of $1.3 million to the members who sponsored the earmarks. Fortunately for the earmark seekers, none of these approved contracts went through the normal vetting process, as some would have been difficult to justify publicly.

Our bloated defense budget is another example of how campaign finance skews policy and spending priorities towards those who give the most and often have significant influence. In his farewell address in January 1961, President Dwight D. Eisenhower warned:

In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.

When questioned about his proposed 2010 budget for the Pentagon by skeptical members of the House Armed Services Committee, Defense Secretary William Gates suggested lawmakers were too eager to defend their parochial interests and were ignoring the bigger picture, saying: "I know that some of you will take issue with individual decisions. I would, however, ask you to look beyond specific programs and instead look at the full range of what we are trying to do -- at the totality of the decisions and how they will change the way we prepare for and fight wars in the future."

There is no arguing the undue influence of military contractors in our current system. In the 2008 election cycle, defense contractors gave more than $23 million in contributions to Members of Congress and spent $277 million lobbying during that same time. Past administrations, Democratic and Republican, have tried and failed to get a handle on wasteful Pentagon spending. It is difficult to imagine contractors receiving such lenient treatment under different circumstances. The New York Times reported in an editorial on May 21 that, "96 major new weapons programs are running almost $300 billion over estimates and averaging 22 months behind delivery."

If we can all agree that defense contractors are influencing our defense spending in order to continue funding for projects the military leadership does not want, then is it crazy to suggest that campaign finance reform is an issue of national security?

I don't think so.

The solution is changing the way we pay for federal political campaigns by creating a system of small donations and public dollars, a proposal known as the Fair Elections Now Act in Congress.

Until we get defense contractors and other special interests out of the business of paying for the bulk of our political campaigns, we will not have policies or federal budgets in the best interest of the American public.