The latest news from Capitol Hill is that prominent Republicans - led by House Budget Committee Chairman Rep. John Kasich (R) of Ohio and Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona - are joining with prominent progressives from Ralph Nader to Sen. Edward Kennedy (D) of Massachusetts to press for cuts in government subsidies for business.
This attack on corporate welfare is well timed: When the most vulnerable members of our society are being asked to get by with less government support, simple fairness dictates that multibillion-dollar corporations reduce their dependence on the public treasury as well.
Unfortunately, a list of a dozen programs targeted by a coalition led by Mr. Kasich omits the biggest corporate welfare fund of all: the Pentagon budget. Five years after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Pentagon spending remains at more than $265 billion per year, a figure far in excess of what is needed to defend the US against any conceivable combination of adversaries. About one-third goes to research and procurement of new weapons systems and ends up in the coffers of major conglomerates like Lockheed Martin, which received $11.6 billion in Pentagon contracts in 1995 alone.
Why has the military budget remained so high? Part of the answer has to do with the Pentagon's questionable strategy of preparing to win two major regional conflicts simultaneously. But the stubborn persistence of lavish weapons outlays can also be traced to a more mundane, domestic source: pork barrel politics. The B-2 bomber, the Seawolf submarine, "Star Wars" antimissile research, and the F/A-18 and F-22 fighters are just a few examples of unnecessary programs generously funded by the 104th Congress - often at levels higher than Pentagon requests.
Where to begin
Billions can be cut from the Pentagon budget as part of a comprehensive reduction of taxpayer-funded corporate welfare programs, beginning with the following:
* No more "payoffs for layoffs." Reps. Bernie Sanders (I) of Vermont, Peter DeFazio (D) of Oregon, and Chris Smith (R) of New Jersey have led the fight against these subsidies to help merged defense companies cover the costs of everything from closing plants and moving equipment to golden parachutes for executives. Lockheed Martin has received at least $800 million in merger subsidies already. Unless this practice is stopped, Boeing and Raytheon are likely to dip into the Treasury for hundreds of millions more when their recently announced mergers are approved later this year.
* Stop welfare for weapons dealers. The federal government spends more than $7.5 billion a year in grants, loans, promotional activities, and other subsidies for weapons exports. These programs should be substantially cut, beginning with the repeal of a $15 billion arms export loan guarantee fund that was created by the Congress in late 1995.
* Cut nuclear weapons spending. Despite recent cutbacks, the US nuclear arsenal remains in a state of massive overkill. Terminating the Trident submarine-launched ballistic missile would save $4.1 billion between now and 2002. Heading off efforts by Northrop Grumman and its friends in Congress to revive the B-2 bomber could save billions.
* Eliminate redundant aircraft. Despite estimates by the General Accounting Office and other independent analysts indicating that currently deployed systems sustain US air superiority over any possible opponent for roughly the next two decades, the Pentagon is in the midst of funding five new combat aircraft programs - the F-22, F/A-18, and Joint Strike fighters, the V-22 tilt-rotor, and the Comanche helicopter - that will cost in excess of $400 billion through the early part of the next century.
A moratorium on purchases of new combat aircraft, combined with a well-funded research effort to stay abreast of possible technological breakthroughs, could save the bulk of these billions for other purposes.
These are some of the cuts that can be made from the Pentagon budget if the national interest is allowed to prevail over corporate special interests. Kasich and McCain have opposed big-ticket Pentagon programs like the B-2 and Seawolf submarine, so adding military spending to the corporate welfare list shouldn't be out of the question. And if President Clinton wants to make room for the substantial new investments in education, he too must put cuts in military spending on the agenda.
Otherwise, reductions in the federal deficit will continue to come at the expense of nutrition, education, job training, and other programs that address the foundation of our strength as a nation: a healthy, well-educated citizenry prepared to face the challenges of the 21st century.
* Ben Cohen is co-chairman of Ben and Jerry's and president and founder of Business Leaders for Sensible Priorities. William D. Hartung is a senior research fellow at the World Policy Institute at the New School for Social Research in New York, and the author of "And Weapons for All" (HarperCollins).