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Analysis: Defense spending is a Mississippi tradition

JEFF AMY

As the current Congress sputters to an end, there’s one accomplishment that Mississippi’s Republican members are looking back on with pride — higher defense spending. It was a theme in the re-election campaigns of several members, and resurfaced with December’s announcement of two more Coast Guard cutters to built at Ingalls Shipbuilding in Pascagoula at an eventual cost of $1.7 billion.

Military support is a tradition for Mississippi’s delegation. The late John C. Stennis is the only U.S. senator with an aircraft carrier named for him, in recognition of his long advocacy for military funding during his 41-year career, including his desire for “a navy second to none.” The late Sonny Montgomery spent much of his 30 years in the U.S. House looking after the needs of veterans, reserve forces and National Guard members, as well as advocating for military bases.

Today, Sen. Roger Wicker is an Air Force veteran. Rep Steven Palazzo is a Marine Corps veteran and member of the Mississippi National Guard. And Rep. Trent Kelly is a brigadier general in the National Guard.

Both Palazzo and Kelly, in interviews with The Associated Press before their re-elections cited increased military spending as one of their goals. Palazzo said he wanted to “continue to fund our military to restore our loss of readiness and recapitalize the equipment. We feel like we’re stronger than we were.”

Kelly said that “I think we continually have to build the strength of the military.”

After ebbing earlier this decade, defense spending has taken off again in the last two years, with the enthusiastic support of Mississippi Republicans. While parts of the federal government were shut down in late December because Congress and President Donald Trump couldn’t agree on a budget, lawmakers and the president signed off on a $717 billion spending plan for defense months ago.

The impact of defense spending is most evident in Palazzo’s 4th Congressional District. There’s Keesler Air Force Base in Biloxi, the Naval Construction Battalion Center in Gulfport and the Naval Meteorology and Oceanography Command and other units at Stennis Space Center and the Camp Shelby National Guard base near Hattiesburg. That’s more than 24,000 active duty and civilian personnel, more than half the state’s total of 46,000, according to Department of Defense figures. And that doesn’t count Ingalls and its 11,000 employees.

Ingalls also stands out in terms of defense contract spending, with its home county of Jackson netting $2.4 billion of the overall $3.5 billion statewide. Second was Madison County, anchored by aerospace and defense vehicle parts supplier Vertex.

Defense spending, though, is relatively unimportant to Mississippi’s statewide economy. In the federal government’s 2016 budget year, it made up 1.6 percent of Mississippi’s overall economy, according to Department of Defense figures . That was less than the nationwide average of 2 percent, and much less than states where defense spending is a much bigger driver of the economy. Military spending made up 5.2 percent of Alabama’s economy that year, fifth highest in the nation.

Whatever its importance, though, defense spending is a way that Mississippi’s delegation can send some money home. In a previous generation, earmarking would have provided that opportunity, as witnessed by all the buildings named after former senators Thad Cochran and Trent Lott. But with Congress forgoing the ability to spend at home directly, pork has to be more indirect. So when Roger Wicker advocates for a 355-ship Navy, he’s pushing for a stronger national defense. But he can rest reasonably assured that a fair number of those ships will be launched in Pascagoula, employing thousands of his constituents.

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» JEFF AMY has covered politics and government for The Associated Press in Mississippi since 2011. Follow him at http://twitter.com/jeffamy .

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