Sanders presses Schumer to restart committee on ‘war profiteering’

Six Senate progressives are calling for the revival of a committee to investigate alleged war profiteering by some of America’s top defense contractors, according to a letter obtained by POLITICO.

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and his colleagues want leaders to reestablish the Senate Special Committee to Investigate the National Defense Program, a panel led during World War II by then-Sen. Harry Truman (D-Mo.). The panel, known as the “Truman Committee,” looked into the defense industry’s profits to ensure they weren’t ripping off the government during an era-defining fight.

The six progressive senators contend major defense contractors, namely Lockheed Martin and RTX Corporation, overcharged the government and used the cash influx to reward shareholders. The senators want Majority Leader Chuck Schumer to revive the Truman Committee as the U.S. hands out military contracts to support the war in Ukraine.

“There’s a name for all this: war profiteering. These companies’ greed is not just fleecing the American taxpayer; it’s killing Ukrainians. A contractor padding its profit margins means that, for the same amount of federal spending, fewer weapons reach Ukrainians on the front lines,” wrote Sanders alongside Sens. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), Ed Markey (D-Mass.), Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) and Peter Welch (D-Vt.).

The goal, they continued, would be “to provide dedicated resources and staff to investigate war profiteering, the effects of consolidation in the defense industry, the lack of sufficient oversight over U.S. military spending, and options for further use of the Defense Production Act or other federal authorities to provide for the national defense in a more cost-effective and transparent manner.”

The letter faults RTX for a sevenfold price increase over the last 30 years for Stinger missiles, which the U.S. has sent to Ukraine, and its plans for $37 billion in stock buybacks through 2025. A buyback is when companies purchase their own shares from the market, which increases value for shareholders.

Lockheed, meanwhile, “received $46 billion in unclassified contracts in 2022, and returned about one quarter of that amount to shareholders through dividends and stock buybacks,” the letter says.

The lawmakers note that Congress has authorized a defense budget of more than $900 billion for this year, and the House is considering the Senate’s $95 billion supplemental package, which would further increase military spending.

Sanders said in an interview that given the massive amounts being spent and the importance of Ukraine’s fight, now’s the time to get serious about oversight.

“The Pentagon, as you may know, is the only major federal agency that has not been able to withstand an independent audit,” Sanders said. “There is zero doubt in my mind that there’s massive cost overruns, that there’s fraud.

“Right now, there’s a request for billions of dollars to help the people of Ukraine fight against [Russian President Vladimir] Putin’s invasion, and I support that. But what we want to make sure of is that money is used to help the Ukrainian army get the military supplies they need and not simply to profit large American corporations and their shareholders — and that’s why we’re looking at the Truman Committee as a model.”

“Supporting the United States government, allies and partners to help deter and respond to an ever-changing 21st-century threat environment remains our number one priority,” Lockheed said in a statement, “and we look forward to continuing to partner with our customers to further their national security objectives.” A spokesperson for RTX declined to comment.

This would not be the only panel to examine this issue in modern times. In 2009, the Senate formed the bipartisan Commission on Wartime Contracting, which delved into deals made during the Afghanistan and Iraq wars. “There was rampant fraud, waste and abuse following the invasion of Iraq,” then-Sen. Jim Webb (D-Va.) said at the time.

It’s unclear if Schumer would agree to the panel’s restoration. But the progressive senators at a minimum want a national discussion about America’s military spending, the consolidation of the defense industry and the potential for fraud when the U.S. sends weapons abroad.

The call comes less than a week before the Biden administration releases its fiscal 2025 budget request, which will be higher than the previous year’s based on the bipartisan budget deal negotiated last year.

“Americans want to see, no matter what your political point of view is, that when you spend a dollar it’s used for the purpose that it was designed for, not to make huge profits for a handful of large defense contractors,” Sanders said.

A congressionally mandated commission’s report aimed at convincing the Pentagon and Congress to reform their budget planning process is due to be released Wednesday..

One of the commission’s interim recommendations would be to give the Defense Department more flexibility to use its budget, to counteract Congress’s repeated use of stop-gap spending bills.

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