The trillion dollar question

Will the next president expand the U.S. nuclear arsenal? If defense contractors have their way, the answer is yes. But grassroots activists are determined to change that. 

Man in front of "we pay for nuclear weapons" banner

On May 12, Judy Elliott caught up with New Jersey Governor Chris Christie at a town hall meeting in Pembroke, New Hampshire.

Once she had the floor, she asked, “I worry a lot about the fact that the U.S. still has almost 5,000 nuclear weapons in its military stockpile in addition to what’s been retired… now the Obama administration and the Pentagon have a plan for a vast expansion of our nuclear weapons capabilities. It’s going to be very good for the weapons makers and the Pentagon contractors. Do you support this expansion of our nuclear weapons?”

Christie’s answer was long, ending on “…I say we spend on defense not to wage war but to prevent war. But you’ve got to spend it the right way if you’re going to prevent war. So I think you raise a really good issue.” He failed to clarify whether he supports the expansion of the U.S. nuclear arsenal.

And Christie is not alone. Over the last several months, volunteers with the American Friends Service Committee’s non-partisan Governing Under the Influence project have questioned Rick Santorum, Scott Walker, Bobby Jindal, Martin O’Malley, Rick PerryJeb Bush, George Pataki, Bernie Sanders, John Kasich, and Carly Fiorina about where they stand on the proposed $1 trillion expansion of the U.S. nuclear system. While some, like Santorum, support the expansion, others skirt the question, or, like Jeb Bush and Rick Perry,  say they are unaware of the plan, or don’t “have a handle” on the issue.

Who profits from nuclear expansion?

Seventy years after the U.S. dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and with both fiscal and moral pressure to decrease the nuclear stockpile, why the push to spend a trillion dollars on nuclear weapons?

One big reason is the money.

"Defense contractors like Lockheed Martin, Northrup Grumman, and Honeywell stand to make billions from nuclear expansion," says John Raby, a volunteer with GUI.  "That's why they spend millions of dollars on lobbying and campaign donations every year to make sure the interests of the military industrial complex stay at the top of federal budget priorities, while education, healthcare, and infrastructure come up short." In fact, Lockheed Martin was recently fined $4.7 million for illegally using taxpayers' money to lobby for federal contracts. 

Media, watchdog organizations, and activists alike have commented on the “revolving door” between lobbyists, defense contractors, and government positions. Lockheed Martin alone employs 82 lobbyists, including at least one former U.S. Senator and two former U.S. Representatives. Seventy percent of Lockheed’s lobbyists are former federal employees.

“This isn’t about national security. The continued proliferation of nuclear warheads threaten the security of the entire globe,” said Iowa AFSC staffer Kevin Rutledge. “This is about private corporations exploiting a corrupt political process for their own gains. The result? Elected officials are ‘governing under the influence’ of private profits. And it’s time for this to stop.”

Grassroots activists challenge corporate power

That’s where Governing Under the Influence, and other similar grassroots projects come in. As presidential candidates traverse Iowa and New Hampshire, AFSC launched the project to challenge corporate influence in the political process. They have trained hundreds of “bird dogs,” volunteers who attend candidate events and ask presidential hopefuls about corporations that profit from militarism, prison expansion, and immigrant detention.

“In New Hampshire and Iowa, we have incredible access,” said Eric Zulaski, the campaign’s NH Grassroots Education Coordinator. “Most of the candidates have made multiple visits to the state for the 2016 race, and you can bet they will be back.”

Each interaction with the candidates is filed as a “bird dog report” and made public on the project’s website. The goal is not to endorse any specific candidate, but to change the conversation.

“The primary elections provide a unique opportunity for everyday people, not just to meet the presidential candidates, but to shape their agendas” said Kevin. “Sure, we’re up against some of the most powerful corporations in the world. But we too have a voice. And if we’re strategic we have a platform, and the power of the people on our side.”

After hundreds of hours spent attending campaign events, shaking hands with politicians, and trying to get a minute on the mic, the volunteer bird-dogs are tired but undaunted. Says bird-dog and Grassroots Engagement Coordinator Olivia Zink, “If this can help create a nuclear-free future for my child, it’s worth every minute.”

Iowa staff with "People Power Over Corporate Power" banner