Democrats Are Fundraising From Arms Dealers Ahead Of A Pentagon Budget Fight

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Top Democratic lawmakers are holding a big-ticket fundraiser with major weapons manufacturers on Thursday ― as Washington enters a budget battle in which concessions to the Pentagon and the defense industry could mean slashing welfare programs like food stamps.

House Democratic Leader Hakeem Jeffries (N.Y.), his deputy Rep. Pete Aguilar (D-Calif.) and Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) chair Rep. Suzan Delbene (D-Wash.) are listed as draws on an invitation to the event obtained by HuffPost. The downtown D.C. function ― dubbed a “defense and national security dinner” ― will raise funds for the committee, which is the campaign arm for House Democrats and is central to their hopes of winning back the lower chamber of Congress.

The affair could net significant support for the DCCC: Host status costs $30,000 for a political action committee (PAC) or $41,300 for an individual, while the cheapest seats are $5,000 for a PAC and $2,500 for an individual.

Dozens of representatives of Pentagon contractors like Lockheed Martin, Boeing, Northrop Grumman, BAE Systems, SpaceX, Palantir and General Dynamics are participating, according to an attendee list viewed by HuffPost.

The group includes figures who previously worked for congressional Democrats, such as Shana Chandler, a government relations director at General Dynamics. Chandler spent 15 years as the chief of staff for Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.), the chief Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee and another co-host of Thursday’s event.

The event provides a striking signal about House Democrats’ priorities as they prepare for the 2024 election cycle and a fight with Republicans demanding spending cuts in exchange for passing vital legislation. For those who want the party to champion social justice and progressive reform, it’s a depressing message.

“I don’t ever make decisions based on contributions, and I never will,” Smith told HuffPost in an emailed response to an inquiry about the fundraiser. Spokespersons for the DCCC, Jeffries, Aguilar, and Delbene, did not respond to multiple requests for comment for this story.

But many observers urge greater resistance to undue influence.

“If our leaders really want to strengthen democracy and build trust in government, they should stop selling access to the wealthy interests and industries they’re supposed to be regulating,” said Matt Duss, a national security analyst who worked on Capitol Hill for Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) “Stuff like this is why demagogues like [former President Donald] Trump have an audience when they say ‘the system is rigged.’”

A senior congressional aide told HuffPost the news of the fundraiser sparked alarm among staffers, calling the event “a particularly egregious example of our most senior Democratic leaders saying one thing but doing another: Claiming to stand for reining in out-of-control defense spending and criticizing Republicans for serving America’s most powerful corporate interests while doing exactly that.”

In the coming months, Democratic legislators will make key decisions affecting the defense industry as they contend with the GOP’s effort to shrink government spending. House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) says he wants across-the-board cuts. But signals from influential Republicans and analyses by budget experts suggest that McCarthy will shield the Defense Department budget – which could lead him to seek sharper trims elsewhere, such as in Social Security and housing assistance.

Democrats could demand limits on Pentagon spending to protect other government institutions. Yet the defense industry will be aggressively lobbying to prevent such a development.

“This event is particularly well timed for the largest defense firms to press their legislative wishlists ahead of both [national defense authorization act] and appropriations season,” the senior congressional aide said. “Despite any claims to the contrary, this type of access and subservience skews our policy-making processes and undermines what Democrats should ― and claim to ― stand for responsible governance and choosing people over politics.”

Rep. Betty McCollum (D-Minn.) is listed as one of the fundraiser’s hosts. As the lead Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee panel overseeing the Defense Department, she has previously resisted efforts to sharply boost the agency’s budget, warning last year: “Overfunding the Pentagon while underfunding the State Department, USAID, and investments at home that strengthen our economy is a costly mistake.”

Rep. Betty McCollum (D-Minn.) co-hosted Thursday's Democratic fundraiser with defense industry representatives and has previously warned against excessive Pentagon spending.
Rep. Betty McCollum (D-Minn.) co-hosted Thursday's Democratic fundraiser with defense industry representatives and has previously warned against excessive Pentagon spending.

Tom Williams via Getty Images

A spokeswoman for McCollum did not respond to requests for comment on her role in the event with the arms industry officials. Like Smith of the armed services committee, McCollum receives significant campaign donations from defense contractors. The sector was not a major contributor to the DCCC in the last few election cycles, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, but Democrats have been emphasizing national security more heavily in their campaign pitches since Trump’s rise scrambled the GOP’s traditional hawkish narrative.

Over the past two years, when Democrats fully controlled Congress, lawmakers twice pushed President Joe Biden to approve more military spending than he had requested. This year, Biden’s Defense Department budget request is even higher than last year’s final figure.

Biden has overseen ballooning Pentagon funding while pledging to shift America’s resources away from costly foreign wars ― in an echo of his predecessor, Trump. Many progressives and some conservatives say the president and Congress should finally translate their rhetoric into change. On Thursday, Reps. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) and Andy Biggs (R-Ariz.) introduced a bill to probe the Pentagon and launch automatic cuts at Defense Department offices that do not receive audits to ferret out suspected waste.

Lee and Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Wis.) are also pushing legislation to reallocate $100 billion from the Pentagon budget. Meanwhile, right-wing advocates are urging McCarthy and Republicans to pursue Defense Department cuts. “Conservatives are ready to... confront the political establishment, unaccountable federal bureaucrats, and well-connected defense contractors all at once in order to keep the nation both solvent and secure,” Kevin Roberts, the president of the Heritage Foundation, argued in an op-ed earlier this year.

For firms that rely on a sizable and growing Pentagon budget, there is a clear imperative to maintain political influence ― even in ways that could be alarming to regular voters.

“Folks have the right to support candidates whose goals are going to align with their own,” said Saurav Ghosh of the watchdog group Campaign Legal Center, noting that the defense industry advances its interests through employee PACs and contributions by well-paid executives.

“The broader question is: is there a conflict of interest between that giving and the policy-making happening in Congress?” Ghosh continued. “When folks see [fundraising] happening, there is a question that is created... are the folks that we elect making the best decisions for the public, or are they making the best decisions for those that are funding their reelection campaigns?

“That causes people to question and outright lose faith in our democratic process.”

When pressed about ethics concerns in drawing campaign contributions, lawmakers and political operatives often argue that it is inevitable that they receive attention from people working in the fields that they oversee.

“It’s understandable ― that doesn’t make it a good thing,” Ghosh said. “The obligation is on the folks in Congress to say, ‘If I want to be impartial or appear impartial, I need to decline PAC donations from the industry that I regulate...’ I think most people would agree with that.”

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