Get Congress Off the Defense Gravy Train

WITH the recent defeat of the proposed pay increase for members of Congress, the influence of military contractors on Capitol Hill - where defense spending decisions originate - will be stronger than ever. If Americans are ever to receive an adequate but not excessive defense at a reasonable price, now is the time to look beyond the latest Pentagon scandal and scrutinize Congress itself - where money from military contractors is openly and legally traded for favors.

Defense contracting is a unique enterprise, in that the Pentagon is the only buyer for its products. But as everyone knows, the Pentagon has not a nickel of its own, and Congress must provide the funds to pay for the munitions that defense industries produce.

Defense contractors will build whatever they can sell while making a profit for their stockholders. It is strictly business with them.

Persuading members of Congress to buy a particular weapon requires some skill, a bit of finesse, and surprisingly little money to get a lucrative contract.

Once elected, members of Congress want to be reelected and, as every defense contractor knows, that requires money. So money from defense contractors pours in year after year to members of the Armed Services and Appropriations Committees of both houses of Congress. In return, of course, the members are usually persuaded to vote for the contractors' weapons.

Contractors cloak their gifts in noble sentiments like support for ``good government,'' or in fancy words like ``honorariums.'' But no one in this town is fooled. Contractors make contributions in return for the member's vote; and elected representatives receive money with the knowledge that a quid pro quo is expected.

Some members of Congress don't like this process and would welcome a change. Some refuse all gifts from political-action committees, also known as PACs, and accept no pay for speeches or appearances. But few members of the Armed Services Committees are able to resist the lure of defense contractor money. Why should they? It's legal and everyone else is accepting it.

In his typically forthright manner, Rep. Barney Frank (D) of Massachusetts sums up the ethical pressures facing members of Congress this way: ``Elected officials are the only human beings in the world who are supposed to take large sums of money on a regular basis, from absolute strangers, without it having any effect on our behavior.''

With chronically high military budgets and blatant funding shortages elsewhere in our society, we can no longer tolerate defense contractors short-circuiting the work of Congress.

Fortunately, closing the congressional door on contractors is easier than many think. The first step would be to make it illegal for defense contractors to provide money under any guise to any member of Congress.

Currently, federal law makes it illegal for a defense contractor to give money to a foreigner in order to secure a contract to sell weapons, and a similar proscription would be no less appropriate for contractors trying to sell weapons to members of Congress. A simple statement in the 1990 defense appropriations bill could read: ``No corporation, or official, or employee of a contractor selling munitions to the US government may give money or services to an elected member of Congress or a candidate for Congress.''

Just to make certain everybody understands the rules, the second step could make it illegal for a member of Congress or a person seeking election to Congress to receive money or services from a company selling munitions to the US government.

It is unlikely that this suggestion would trigger a rash of amendments to the appropriations bill. But who knows, perhaps such an amendment will appear simply because so many members of Congress secretly resent, but cannot publicly resist, the ever-increasing influence of the defense contractors.

Defense contractors are an essential component of the military-industrial complex. But munitions should be purchased only to satisfy a military need, never to satisfy a manufacturer's quest for a profit.

Once the flow of money from contractors to members of Congress has been halted, we must take another look at a reasonable congressional pay raise and also consider adopting a congressional version of campaign financing via the income tax checkoff now used to fund presidential races.

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