Who cares for the voter as US politicians splurge on defence?

Where does this money go? To a large extent, it goes to the famed military-industrial complex that builds the new planes, rockets, missile systems, ships, submarines etc - the greatest war machine known to humankind

By Chidanand Rajghatta

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Published: Wed 21 Dec 2022, 9:17 PM

Last updated: Wed 21 Dec 2022, 9:52 PM

Nearly 85 years ago, the director Frank Capra presented to a global audience the film 'Mr. Smith Goes to Washington', in which a young debutante senator played by James Stewart exposes the corrupt ways of US lawmakers.

Already in some disrepute ("Suppose you were an idiot, and suppose you were a member of Congress; but I repeat myself," Mark Twain had said), US politicians of that era reacted angrily to the movie, calling it anti-American and pro-Communist. One senator raged that the film was "a grotesque distortion" of how the Senate works and made lawmakers look like a bunch of crooks.

There were calls to ban the movie. It didn't happen, and although the film won only one Oscar out of the 11 it was nominated for, it is now considered a classic, selected by the Library of Congress as one of the first 25 films for preservation in the United States National Film Registry for being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant."

Not much has changed with regards to the US Congress though. Shortly before the Library of Congress consecrated the film in its archives, then President Ronald Reagan wondered "what the 'Ten Commandments' would have looked like if Moses had run them through the US Congress." The comedian Milton Berle joked, "You can lead a man to Congress, but you can't make him think."

Approval rating of Congress remains dismal to this day, reaching teen levels in recent times (16 per cent in June 2022). The only time it has gone past 50 per cent? In the days after 9/11, when it briefly crested to 80 per cent.

While this suggests that nothing animates the American public into support for its lawmakers than danger to US national security, the fact that approval rating of Congress has remained below 25 per cent throughout the year indicates that Americans are not particularly concerned or perturbed about the Russia-Ukraine war. In fact, responding perhaps to constituent indifference, or even hostility to the distant war, a number of lawmakers both on the conservative right and progressive left want Washington to bail out of the conflict, worried about US taxpayers having to foot the bill for what now appears to be an interminable spat.

Yet, a large number of lawmakers from both sides, constituting a majority, are lining up billions of dollars in war funding for Ukraine as President Volodymr Zelensky comes to Washington. Tucked into a $ 1.7 trillion omnibus spending bill is more than $44 billion in emergency war funding for the Ukraine conflict, on top of the nearly $ 60 billion already funnelled into the war. Of course, not all of it goes directly to Ukraine or to the war itself. There's a few billion to bolster the Nato defences against further Russian aggression; a few billion to fund the surge of US forces in Eastern Europe; a few billion to reimburse the Pentagon for equipment sent from its stockpiles to Ukraine.

But underlining all this is the way Washington works -- fast and furtively, with little regard to the voice of the voter and his representative "Mr Smith," of which there are only a few in Congress. Running into 4,155 pages, the spending bill was rushed into Congress at 2am on Tuesday -- to be voted through by Friday before Congress shuts down for Christmas. One lawmaker pointed out that he'd have to read 47 pages an hour non-stop to finish reading the bill before the Friday midnight deadline to pass the legislation.

Of course, lawmakers have staff and assistants. Many would have already gone through sections, drafting and crafting portions of the bill of interest to their legislators, constituents and special interests, in a cozy exercise that is a Washington hallmark. Presenting lolly for Zelensky/ Ukraine is just one part of the exercise, a cover for billions of dollars in other spending that few Americans have the time and bandwidth to notice in detail. It includes a staggering $858 billion in overall defence funding, some $70 billion more than 2022 levels. Accounting for more than half the spending detailed in the bill, it is $36 billion more than what even President Biden asked for! Any wonder, the US defense budget is more than that of the next ten countries – including China and Russia – put together?

Where does this money go? To a large extent, it goes to the famed military-industrial complex that builds the new planes, rockets, missile systems, ships, submarines etc -- the greatest war machine known to humankind: $31.96 billion for warships and submarines, $8.5 for fighter jets, $2. billion to aerial refueling planes… the list goes on. All this amid myriad vanity projects for lawmakers with the heft required to swing their items through in backroom dealmaking. It is only those who are left out of the spoils who turn into Mr Smiths.

- The writer is a senior journalist based in Washington

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