American democracy is shackled by the influence of money in politics. One of the arenas where the problem manifests itself most acutely is in Congress on questions of defense industry appropriations and arms exports. In a book that describes an unusual success story in overcoming moneyed interests in Congress, former Defense Secretary Robert Gates wrote that the armed services and appropriations committees “were largely split not by party or ideology but, with a few exceptions, by the location of the pork.” As Gates and defense secretaries before him witnessed, Congress often voted for programs favoring defense facilities or contracts in members’ districts or states despite the Pentagon taking the strong position that the program was superfluous or wasteful. In his own words Gates was “more or less continuously outraged by the parochial self-interest of all but a very few members of Congress.”

The coming Senate debate on a section of the arms deal with Saudi Arabia can shine a light on another way in which the Congress can be captured by the defense industry. It will showcase how votes correlate with money given by the defense industry to congressional campaigns. Indeed, the coming show on the Senate floor will likely reproduce many of the same lines uttered and parts played by various lawmakers when the Senate last voted on an arms package for Saudi Arabia in September of last year. Thanks to a database on campaign contributions at the Center for Responsive Politics, we can also now peer into how different senators’ votes may be shaped by who contributes to them and how much.

The September 2016 vote in the Senate

Due to a peculiar provision in the 1976 Arms Export Control Act, a single senator can force a floor debate and a vote on an arms deal after the White House notifies the Congress of its approval of the sale. That’s what happened last September thanks to a bipartisan group of Senators–Rand Paul, Chris Murphy, Mike Lee, and Al Franken–who forced their colleagues to vote on a $1.15 billion sale of Abrams tanks to Saudi Arabia. The final result was a lopsided 71-27 in favor of the arms deal. Senators who voted in favor of the deal did so despite credible evidence that the Saudis had used U.S. munitions in carrying out airstrikes against civilians in its war in Yemen.

So why did individual senators favor the deal? What motivated their vote? At the time, the Senate was not a wellspring of affection for U.S. relations with Saudi Arabia. The arms sale vote occurred on Wednesday, September 21. The very following Wednesday the Senate voted 97-1 to override a presidential veto and pass the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act, which placed a massive strain on U.S.-Saudi relations. That law opened the Kingdom to lawsuits alleging it was partly responsible for the 9/11 attacks.

Scholars have long told us that the political influence of the defense industry can shape the outcome of arms export decisions. In 1997, Jennifer Washburn wrote in a piece for the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, “Using its formidable financial and political clout, the industry has grown expert in slanting U.S. policy decisions for its own financial gain—often to the detriment of human rights and global security.” The United States is not alone. A more recent article in the Review of International Economics finds that democracies are less likely to approve arms exports when political leaders enjoy more highly concentrated power and when executives are coming up for reelection and subject to the scrutiny of individual voters.

How might these general dynamics play out in the upcoming Senate debate? The specific sale to the Saudis back in September provides lots of guidance. One key is to look at each senator’s campaign coffers and how they split on the vote. I used raw data from the Center for Responsive Politics data, which includes contributions to campaign committees and leadership PACs. Tallying the numbers, I found that on average, senators voting against the arms sale received $21,484 per year in campaign contributions from the defense industry compared to senators voting in favor of the deal who received $33,716 per year. In other words, the defense industry paid an average of more than $12,000 per year to senators who voted in favor of the deal. Or in more stark terms, senators voting in favor of the arms deal received 57% more contributions on average per year from the defense industry than senators who voted against the arms deal.

Concerned that those findings might be driven by outliers, I also looked at the median contributions received instead of average contributions. The result was similar if not even more pronounced: the median amount received by senators voting against the arms sale was $14,430 per year in campaign contributions from the defense industry compared to the median amount of $26,500 per year for those voting in its favor. Because the medians were lower than the averages this means that as for a bottom line: the median for senators voting in favor of the arms deal was 84% higher in contributions from the defense industry than senators who voted against the arms deal.

Only a handful of senators who voted for the arms deal actually spoke out in its favor. Senator Mitch McConnell justified the sale on the theory that another country would fill in the gap. He said in his remarks, “Denying the sale of Abrams tank structures will simply lead some of our allies to pursue weapons systems from other countries. Let me say that again. The Saudis don’t have to buy this equipment from us. They can buy it from somebody else.” Senator McConnell’s average contribution from the defense industry: $59,158 annually from 2011-2016. Others who spoke in favor of the bill included Senators John Cornyn ($52,758 annually from 2011-2016), Lindsey Graham ($67,132 annually from 2011-2016), and John McCain ($71,119 annually from 2011-2016). All four of them received amounts far in excess of the average or the median — whichever way you prefer to look at it – compared to those who voted for the arms sale. In other words, take that 50% and 87% figure and ratchet it up a lot.

Of course it is important to add that one can’t so easily say that any senator’s vote was influenced by the contributions received. The causal arrow could point in the other direction: not that senators decide to vote a certain way due to defense industry contributions, but that the defense industry decides to fund individuals who have already determined that they will support the industry. What is more, senators with leadership positions on relevant committees, like the Senate Armed Services Committee, are more likely to be the ones to speak on a defense bill, and are also more likely to receive more contributions from industries within their policy space. Even on this most charitable account, however, these monied connections still undermine the integrity of the process. Indeed, removing money from politics is what Senator John McCain’s presidential campaign emphasized because even well-meaning legislators cannot remove the taint of money and the integrity of the process is inevitably compromised.

What’s more, even if legislators are influenced by such contributions it is difficult to know whether one should be “outraged” against them as former Secretary Gates expressed himself, or instead it is more appropriate to blame the system. Because elections are often won and lost on the size of a campaign coffer, the system places a lot of pressure on legislators to fulfill donors’ wishes. It would also be rational for donors in other industries to observe when a legislator received large sums from defense contractors but later voted against those contractors’ interests. In other words, a Senator who does not fulfill the expectations of donors in one industry may scare away donors in other industries. Senators who want to survive in this ecosystem would need to be aware of such risks.

Money also pollutes other policy spaces that influence congressional votes. In March of this year, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee invited former ambassador Gerald Feierstein—Director of the Center for Gulf Affairs at the Middle East Institute—to speak about the situation in Yemen and about his views on the sale of US arms to the Saudis. As one might have anticipated from his interview in the Washington Post, Feierstein told the Committee, “Accusations of war crimes leveled against Saudi and Coalition armed forces and threats to end arms sales to the Saudis have the potential to inflict long-lasting damage to these relationships.” Limiting the supply of munitions, he said, would be “counter-productive,” and he added, “I don’t understand why if you’re concerned about Saudi actions causing collateral damage you would limit the ability of them to acquire the kinds of weapons that would limit collateral damage and would allow them to be more accurate.” (The answer is that you may be concerned the Saudis would use those more accurate weapons to target civilians, funeral homes, and other objects on a no-strike-list.)

Never disclosed in the Washington Post interview or in the Senate hearing was the source of funding for Feierstein’s Middle East Institute. According to its most recent public report, the Institute counts among its chief donors leading members of the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen and major arms manufacturers. Saudi Arabia and Kuwait provide the highest level of support as “Platinum Sponsors,” and the UAE is also a donor. Raytheon, the manufacturer of the very weapons at issue in the Senate hearing, is a Gold Sponsor of the Institute. It is worth noting of course that the Middle East Institute is not unique in Washington. The defense industry and foreign governments pump money into many think tanks.

Standing in the background are also lobbyists for these companies and countries. For instance, in 2016, Saudi Arabia hired The McKeon Group, a lobbying firm run by former Rep. Buck McKeon (R-Calif.), who served as chairman of the House Armed Services Committee from 2011 until he retired from Congress in 2015. McKeon’s other clients include two of his top former campaign contributors: General Dynamics and Lockheed Martin. 

The coming Senate vote

The backdrop to the September floor debate is different than the upcoming one, in ways that will make the job more difficult for those favoring the arms deal. Last September, senators’ votes were informed by U.S. agencies and departments clearly encouraging the sale. Although the Trump White House will support this sale, it is in a very different context. In December, the Obama administration officially decided to suspend the sale of precision-guided munitions—manufactured by Raytheon and totaling nearly $400 million–due to concerns about civilian casualties from Saudi airstrikes. And it is mainly the resumption of that particular sale that will be the focus of the congressional debate. Indeed, Senators Murphy and Paul have been smart to try to hone the debate not on the overall $100+ billion deal, but on the specific sale of Raytheon precision-guided missiles which the Obama White House suspended and similar offensive weapons for use in Yemen.

Second, the September 2016 vote involved mainly defensive systems, at least that’s how its proponents framed the vote. It was accordingly easier to justify than an arms sale to resupply the Saudis with more U.S. bombs that were killing civilians in Yemen. Back in September, Sen. McConnell said on the floor of the Senate, “There is no evidence—none—that the Saudis have used the Abrams tanks in ground combat within Yemen. These systems have been used along the Saudi Arabia border to defend against Houthi incursions.” He then turned over the floor to McCain who said: “The sale will give Saudi Arabia tanks it has used to defend its own country from Houthi attacks. The United States has no evidence that Saudi Arabia has used the tanks outside of Saudi territory. In fact, 20 of the tanks in the case would be intended to replace those damaged by Houthi artillery while the tanks were on Saudi territory, deployed in defensive positions to counter offensive Houthi cross-border raids.” (The manufacture and sale of Abrams tanks is also one of those special parts of the defense sector that has long had Congress rally on its behalf in spite of US defense needs or national security interests.)

Third, more information has come to light since the September vote. For example, in December, the Saudis admitted to the use of cluster munitions after a long pattern of denials. In January, an expert panel mandated by the Security Council issued a report concluding that the Saudi-led coalition’s violations were “sufficiently widespread to reflect either an ineffective targeting process or a broader policy of attrition against civilian infrastructure,” and the panel identified U.S. munitions at several blast sites. Human Rights Watch also documented 23 times in which its researchers “had identified remnants of U.S.-supplied weapons at the site of an apparently unlawful coalition attack.” And most recently, a former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Middle East Policy wrote that the Obama team learned over time that the Saudi military does not have the capacity to effectively minimize civilian casualties in their air campaign.

In the upcoming debate, senators will have to weigh such information about the use of U.S. munitions against the fact that the rest of the $100 billion deal with the Saudis, including a host of defensive systems, will go through in any case. In other words, this is not about starving Saudi Arabia of arms; Senators Murphy and Paul will be able to claim that a compromise position is to approve the rest of the deal but not this subset of munitions for use in Yemen.   

The fate of U.S. national security

There are many policy concerns that could be raised about the decision to arm the Saudi-led military campaign in its fight against Houthi rebels in Yemen. On one side of the balance are potentially great humanitarian costs measured by civilians killed in airstrikes, detainee abuse, and large-scale famine if planned operations go forward. That side of the equation also includes potential strategic costs such as unwittingly handing Iran a victory, assisting a national government that is sometimes in bed with al-Qaeda, and fueling anti-American sentiment among the local population when our partners’ military operations go badly. Of course there are potentially benefits as well, including finding a way to work with the Yemeni government and the UAE in the separate fight against al-Qaeda. The key, however, in figuring out the right balance is to weigh those kinds of competing concerns. Decisions should not be influenced by the kinds of self-dealing parochial interests that Secretary Gates observed in this policy space.

Gates’s warning is broader still. The failure to eliminate senseless defense projects will eventually come at the price of U.S. national security. “Behavior that was simply frustrating to me,” Gates observed, will seriously impair our national security in the years ahead as the defense budget shrinks: failure to cut or close unneeded programs and facilities will drain precious dollars from the troops and our war-fighting capabilities.” The same is true for arms exports—Congress must first determine whether specific weapon sales like these munitions to the Saudis will fuel unnecessary conflict and implicate the United States in war crimes and whether those risks are worth the potential economic and national security gains. It puts our country in jeopardy when the answer to those questions becomes distorted by the arms industry’s undue influence in the political process.


Image: Sen. Rand Paul, Center for the National Interest Vice Chairman Dov Zakheim, and Sen. Chris Murphy discuss legislation to halt the sale of some weapons to Saudi Arabia at the center September 19, 2016 – Chip Somodevilla/Getty