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Posted at 3:07 p.m. on Aug. 15, 2014
With images of heavily armed police confronting protesters in Ferguson, Mo., sparking a national debate about police militarization, a campaign finance research organization has released a study showing how much defense industry money House members got before a June 19 vote that rejected Rep. Alan Grayson’s amendment to block military equipment transfers to local law enforcement. The organization, MapLight, found that those who voted against it got 73 percent more in defense industry donations than those who voted in favor.
But there are probably bigger reasons for the vote going the way it did. And the issue could come up again in Congress — Senate Armed Services Chairman Carl Levin, D-Mich., promised Friday to review the program before his committee’s fiscal 2015 defense policy bill comes to the floor; Rep. Hank Johnson, D-Ga., has put forward new legislation; and others are calling for hearings. So it’s worth reviewing the motivations for those votes.
It’s not as if campaign donations can’t sway a vote, or make a lawmaker more inclined to support a certain industry. But the so-called 1033 program that Grayson, D-Fla., was going after sends excess military surplus to local police, which means that in most cases, the defense contractors who originally supplied the equipment to the Pentagon had little direct stake in the outcome.
MapLight, however, cited an American Civil Liberties Union report that the 1033 program is providing new equipment in 36 percent of the cases.
“Thus, it appears that DLA [Defense Logistics Agency] can simply purchase property from an equipment or weapons manufacturer and transfer it to a local law enforcement agency free of charge,” the ACLU report states. “Given that more than a third of property transferred under the program is in fact new, it appears that this practice happens with some regularity.”
Daniel G. Newman, president and co-founder of MapLight, said a potential additional benefit would be if contractors could then find a secondary market for their equipment, such as with replacement parts, or if a local government that got one free drone from the 1033 program wanted to buy another directly from the contractor.
The most important reason lawmakers might have voted against Grayson’s amendment, however, and they did so in droves (355 said no; 62 said yes — once it finally came to a vote after a failed bid), is that they tend to back anything that sends free federal equipment to cash-strapped locals. That made the Department of Homeland Security’s grant programs for first responders to buy equipment to respond to terrorist attacks so popular for so long, even amid questions about wasteful spending.
Look at the statements from the lawmakers themselves about why they opposed Grayson’s amendment.
“There are many reasons why lawmakers support or oppose bills,” Newman said. “But the correlation between defense industry money and their votes shows is that it’s not only about constituent interests.”
Of course, that vote happened weeks before Ferguson and police militarization were in the headlines, and lawmakers in the debate praised how responsibly the surplus equipment was being used. With the topic now in the spotlight, the level and tenor of constituent interest (and lawmakers’ viewpoints on the program) might have shifted as well.
“Congress established this program out of real concern that local law enforcement agencies were literally outgunned by drug criminals,” Levin said in a news release Friday. “We intended this equipment to keep police officers and their communities safe from heavily armed drug gangs and terrorist incidents. Before the defense authorization bill comes to the Senate floor, we will review this program to determine if equipment provided by the Defense Department is being used as intended.”