Bernie Sanders Applies "ACORN Standard" to Defense Contractors

By:  John Nichols
The Nation

Now that the U.S. House and Senate have established an "ACORN Standard" for policing federal expenditures -- if even a few employees of an organization that feeds at the public trough stand accused of engaging in activities that appear to be inappropriate, then federal funding must be yanked – it would be nice to think that Congress has given itself permission to go after the seriously sleazy players who make it their business to rob American taxpayers.

We're still in "wait-and-see" mode on that one.

But what should by now be clear to anyone who is interested in dealing with government waste is that cracking down on community organizers who try to help poor people find housing and register voters in historically-disenfranchised communities was a cheap distraction. No one with wealth or power was confronted. No policies were changed. No societal challenges were addressed.

ACORN collected around $53 million in federal largess over a 15 year period when congressional Republicans were more often than not in charge of the budgeting process. In fairness to the Republicans, they spent the money rather responsibly. Despite some embarrassing video tapes of irresponsible ACORN employees who have since been fired, the evidence is overwhelming that most of the money that was allocated to the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now to support affordable housing and community empowerment initiatives was well and wisely spent.

So, for all the blather from ridiculously partisan congressional Republicans and their ridiculously frightened Democratic colleagues, the ACORN purge accomplished little or nothing when it came to combating fraud or freeing up federal funds for useful purposes.

But that does not mean that the ACORN distraction was a complete waste of time and legislative energy.

Now that the Congress has established the ACORN precedent, it can be used to go after the multinational corporations that have mastered the game of Grand Theft Treasury.

Members of the House and Senate have given themselves permission to grab the cuff-linked wrists of the penthouse pimps and prostitutes and pull their manicured fingers out of our wallets of the taxpayers.

Where to begin?

Bernie Sanders has the right idea.

"The sad truth of the matter is that virtually every major defense contractor in this country has, for a period of many years, been engaged in systemic, illegal, and fraudulent behavior, while receiving hundreds and hundreds of billions of dollars of taxpayer money," the independent senator from Vermont explained in a floor statement last week. "We're not talking here about the $53 million that ACORN received over 15 years. We're in fact talking about defense contractors who have received many, many billions in defense contracts and year after year, time after time, violated the law, ripping off the taxpayers of this country big time. And in some instances, these contractors have done more than ripping off the taxpayers. In some instances, they have endangered the lives and well being of the men and women who serve our country in the armed forces."

Sanders came to the debate armed with weapons that the critics of ACORN lacked: facts, figures and a sense of proportion.

"According to the Project on Government Oversight, a non-partisan, widely respected organization focusing on government waste, the three largest government contractors, Lockheed Martin, Boeing, and Northrop Grumman, all have a history riddled with fraud and other illegal behavior. Combined, these companies have engaged in 109 instances of misconduct just since 1995, and have paid fees and settlements for this misconduct totaling $2.9 billion. Let me repeat that - these three companies, Lockheed Martin, Boeing, and Northrop Grumman, have engaged in 109 instances of misconduct just since 1995, and have paid fees and settlements for this misconduct totaling $2.9 billion," said the independent senator.

Then Sanders added "the kicker: Despite violating the law time after time after time; despite being fined time after time after time -- Guess what? In 2007, their punishment was... $77 billion in government contracts, $77 billion in government contracts."

That was a sufficiently shocking figure to shame the senators into backing a Sanders-sponsored amendment to the Department of Defense appropriations bill that would require the Secretary of Defense to calculate how much money it pays out each year to corporations that have committed fraud. (Unlike with ACORN, which was targeted for punishment on the basis of embarrassing actions portrayed in videos shot by critics of the organization, this amendment applies to defense contractors that have been convicted of committing fraudulent acts or that have admitted to engaging in illegal actions taken with the purpose of defrauding the federal government.)

The Sanders amendment would also require Pentagon officials to recommend penalties for contractors that repeatedly cheat the government out of hundreds of millions – and perhaps billions – of dollars.

The acceptance by the Senate of the Sanders amendment was a significant act -- if not quite an accountability moment.

It is not often that members of Congress pick on corporations that make meaningful campaign contributions and pack their lobbying teams with former members of the House and Senate.

But, with the "ACORN Standard" now in place, it was hard for senators to argue with Sanders, especially when the their colleague from Vermont offered this bit of perspective:

Just to reiterate, a few weeks ago, this Senate voted to strip funding for an organization called ACORN, which received $53 million in federal funds over a period of 15 years. The basis of that decision was a video tape shown repeatedly on national television in which several ACORN employees were involved in a totally absurd and reprehensible discussion. Those employees have since been fired, and should have been fired, and ACORN should be extremely ashamed that people like that were employed by them.

But now, we are involved with an issue of far greater consequence than ACORN. Not of $53 million of federal funds over 1 5 years but of hundreds and hundreds of billions of dollars going to large corporate defense contractors who year after year after year engage in illegal behavior and rip off the American taxpayer. One has got to be pretty blind not to perceive that this type of behavior is systemic to the industry and that it is part of their overall business model. And, let me just add, what I've described now is just some of what these companies have been caught doing. Who knows what other illegal activities have taken place which have not yet been discovered.

Mr. President, the time is long overdue for us to get to the bottom of this situation. We owe that not only to the taxpayers of this country but to the men and women in our Armed Forces.

Sanders did his part.

So did the Senate.

Now, of course, the House must do its part.

President Obama must get on board.

And then the Pentagon must be made to begin a process of policing the military-industrial complex.

That's a whole lot harder than picking on an anti-poverty group.

It's also a whole lot more important.