Leadership: How Politicians Extort Campaign Money From The Troops


August 31, 2006: The U.S. Air Force has gone to war with Congress over politicians using air force money to buy votes. Nothing new, really. Defense spending has been a source of political patronage for thousands of years. And politicians continue to come up with new ways to divert defense dollars for their own use. In the United States, this has basically come down to 'not losing jobs' (which will lose you votes in the next election). Try to close an unneeded military base, and there is a storm of political protest. Try to cancel a weapons program, and there's another uproar.
What got the air force to take the unusual step of fighting back, is the latest ploy politicians have adopted to protect their jobs from the wrath of unhappy, and unemployed, voters. Realizing that air force bases tend to get closed once there are no longer any aircraft based on them, politicians have been passing laws that forbid the air force from retiring certain aircraft. These are aircraft that occupy air bases in states or Congressional districts, where those air force jobs make a large impact on the local economy. These are usually bases in rural, less affluent areas. Politicians in Congress get away with this because of the time honored custom of 'you scratch my back (vote for my pet project), and I'll scratch yours.'
The navy doesn't have this problem, because its bases tend to be near large cities, and coastal real estate is always going to find buyers willing to pay top dollar. The army doesn't have expensive systems like warships or hundred million dollar jet fighters. In fact, the air force and navy get far more defense dollars, per capita, than the army. Politicians go where the money is, and the air force has the most money.
The air force is particularly vulnerable to this political extortion, because it has long received the biggest portion of the defense budget. Thus for decades, the air force has, without much protest, built aircraft it didn't want (the C-130 being the most famous of these), and tried to keep unneeded bases open. But more politicians began shaking down the air force, especially with the 'you cannot retire this ancient aircraft' scam, and money got really tight. Now the air force, despite all the money it gets, is caught in a major cash crunch. It feels it cannot afford to spend over half a billion dollars a year to buy some politicians a few votes out in the economically depressed countryside. The air force has a list of C-130s, B-52s, F-117s and other aircraft it wants to get rid of, if it can just get these politicians off their backs, and out of their bank account. Odds are against the air force coming out of this without taking some serious political damage. But it's all interesting to watch.




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