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My Congressman Stands for Money, Not for Me

And, what's even worse, there's no way I can get rid of him

September 26, 2004|Chalmers Johnson | Chalmers Johnson is a retired professor of international relations at UC San Diego and the author of, among other books, "The Sorrows of Empire" and "Blowback."

It is news to no one who pays the slightest attention to American politics that Congress is no longer responsive to the people. Incumbency is so well institutionalized that elections generally don't mean much. Take the case of guns: House Majority Leader Tom DeLay approves of the private ownership of assault weapons and machine guns, despite complaints from police across the country that they're outgunned by criminals, despite the 65% of the public that wants them banned, despite pleas from the relatives of murdered Americans. On this issue, the National Rifle Assn. seems to own the Congress.

A similar situation exists with regard to munitions makers. In one district after another, the weapons industry has bought the incumbent, and would-be challengers are unable to overcome the advantage of incumbency. On really big projects like the B2 Stealth bomber, contracts for different parts of the airplane are placed in as many congressional districts as possible. This is done to spread the pork (in the form of jobs) around. But it also ensures that a wide swath of congressional representatives have a disincentive to ever ask whether we really need another weapon of massive destruction. It's part of the reason we have defense budgets of $425 billion per year (plus that extra $87 billion for Iraq and Afghanistan, $20 billion for nuclear weapons and $200 billion more for veterans and the wounded), leading to the highest governmental deficits in postwar history. It seems likely that only bankruptcy will stop the American imperial juggernaut.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday October 17, 2004 Home Edition Opinion Part M Page 2 Editorial Pages Desk 2 inches; 81 words Type of Material: Correction
Defense spending -- An article on incumbency and Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham in the Sept. 26 Opinion section incorrectly stated that the House Appropriations Committee approved individual defense contracts. It does not. The article also incorrectly stated that $200 billion was spent annually on veterans and wounded soldiers. The Department of Veterans Affairs spends approximately $65 billion a year. The Defense Department spends an additional $25 billion a year on medical care, according to 2003 figures from the Congressional Budget Office.

California's 50th Congressional District in northern San Diego County where I live is a good example of exactly how this plays out at the local level. The constituents of the 50th have been misrepresented in Washington for the last 14 years by a wholly paid-for tool of the military-industrial complex, the Republican incumbent, Randy "Duke" Cunningham. The heavily populated 50th District has changed in recent years from the wealthy Republican stronghold it once was to a much more politically diverse mix, and that should spell trouble for Cunningham, whose record on such things as abortion, school vouchers and the environment are increasingly out of step with a wide swath of his constituents.

This year, Cunningham is opposed by Francine Busby, a well-qualified Democrat whose views are probably much closer to a majority of voters in the 50th. But a look at the candidates' fundraising and expenditures demonstrates why Busby faces an uphill fight. Incumbents have an advantage that's almost impossible to overcome, as races throughout the nation will demonstrate this fall. The Cunningham-Busby race illustrates why.

Let's start with money. As of June 30, campaign records show, Cunningham had raised $608,977, or nearly 10 times the amount Busby had raised. About 46% of Cunningham's money comes from political action committees, or PACs, compared with 2% of Busby's. Nearly a third of Cunningham's money comes from out of state, compared with only 3% of Busby's.

What kind of people like to give to an incumbent like Cunningham? Based on Federal Election Commission data released in August, his top contributors by industry/occupation are defense electronics ($66,550), defense aerospace ($39,000), lobbyists ($32,500), miscellaneous defense ($29,200), air transport ($26,500), health professionals ($24,700) and real estate ($23,001). Cunningham's No. 1 financial backer is the Titan Corp. of San Diego, which gave him $15,000. It has recently been in the news because an Arabic translator it supplied under a contract with the U.S. Army has been implicated in the Abu Ghraib prison scandal in Iraq.

Now it may be that these donors contribute to Cunningham instead of Busby just because they like the guy. But Titan's $657-million Pentagon contract had to be approved by the House Appropriations Committee's national defense subcommittee, on which Cunningham sits. Lockheed Martin, the world's largest weapons manufacturer, also gave Cunningham a whopping $15,000. They too can't help but be interested in those purse strings he holds. The list of Cunningham's top contributors reads like a Who's Who among the nation's war suppliers: Raytheon (which makes the Tomahawk cruise missile), Northrop Grumman, General Dynamics and on and on.

To judge by Cunningham's voting record, their money was well spent. Not only has he been a strong supporter of the war in Iraq -- which directly benefits many of his contributors -- he also has embraced the causes of the neconservative strategists in Washington who favor a more aggressive foreign policy that would probably, down the road, benefit the defense contractors even more.

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