In 2007, when Democrats took control of both houses of Congress for the first time since 1994, the Iraq War was at its zenith. Ending the war was the top priority for progressives.
At that time, a centrist senior Democratic aide pulled me aside and told me that my lefty friends and I were being irrational. Democrats could not push to end the war in Iraq or, in fact, take any steps to roll back the ever-burgeoning Pentagon budget. Doing so would electorally weaken the party, condemning us to defeat. That, according to her, was the lesson of the post–Vietnam War era.
While ahistorical, that fear loomed large in post–September 11 Washington, DC. For the most part, Democrats have been participants in the rapid expansion of the military budget.
In September 2017, as the #Resistance raged among liberal circles, President Donald Trump’s first National Defense Authorization bill arrived on the floor of the United States Senate. Despite the calls to oppose the president on every front, the overwhelming majority of Democrats voted to massively increase the Pentagon’s budget, this time by more than $80 billion annually, fulfilling one of Trump’s campaign promises. Only four Democrats — Kirsten Gillibrand, Patrick Leahy, Jeff Merkley, and Ron Wyden — voted, along with Bernie Sanders, against the bill. They were joined by three Republicans: Bob Corker, Mike Lee, and Rand Paul. Despite no major military conflicts, this budget approached defense spending at the height of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The fear that was expressed to me in 2007 still had a hold on elected Democrats a decade later. In a country with millions of people still lacking basic social welfare, the budget is a bloated disgrace. Nearly half of this public money feeds the bottom lines of defense contractors.
Many of these corporations have been fined for defrauding the government, yet they still get to line up every year, hat in hand, and walk away with billions of dollars. The Poor People’s Campaign noted in their Moral Budget that “one contractor alone, Lockheed Martin, took in more than $35 billion in Pentagon contracts in 2018 — nearly as much as the entire $40 billion budget for the State Department and USAID combined.” The Project on Government Oversight has tracked at least eighty-eight instances of misconduct by Lockheed Martin, resulting in nearly $768 million in penalties since 1995.
Everyone in Washington knows this. Everyone sees the waste. Everyone knows the source: the combination of fear about seeming weak on defense combined with a lobbying and campaign contribution system that rewards those who allow this corruption to continue.
When the Senate reconvenes following its current two-week recess, it will once again take up a Defense Authorization bill delivering a policy victory to the White House and the military-industrial complex in the form of budget increases.
Yet there is some hope of change. Bernie Sanders offered an amendment before the Senate went on break that would cut the Pentagon’s budget by 10 percent in order to “create a federal grant program to fund health care, housing, childcare and educational opportunities for cities and towns experiencing a poverty rate of 25% or more.”
While the federal government could — and obviously should — create this program without cutting funds to anything, this amendment puts into stark view the policy choices Congress is making.
The likelihood of this amendment receiving the required sixty votes is infinitesimal, but the coalition emerging behind it demonstrates Sanders’s continued influence. Even though they voted for Trump’s defense increase in 2017, Massachusetts senators Elizabeth Warren and Ed Markey signed on as cosponsors of this amendment.
A greater sign of the mainstreaming of this position took place on Friday afternoon when Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer took to Twitter to proclaim his support for the Sanders’s amendment, writing, “Proud I fought alongside @SenSanders to ensure we vote in July on his amendment to cut $740B defense budget by 10% and put $$ into priorities like health care, housing, childcare in communities with 25%+ poverty — including many communities of color . . . I proudly support the amendment.”
This vote is the beginning of a campaign. Cutting the defense budget can move from being a backwater issue, championed by Barbara Lee in the House and Bernie Sanders in the Senate, to becoming an actual reality in 2021.
In this conversation, one trap that must be avoided at all costs is the notion that these cuts are about reducing the federal deficit. The current amendment on the floor makes sense as a rhetorical device, particularly in this moment when impoverished communities are disproportionately suffering from the impacts of the pandemic. The choice now will be clear for legislators voting. Do you support money for defense contractors or dollars for the communities in your state who need it the most? The amendment is specifically targeted this way by exempting cuts to salaries and health care.
Additionally, those who make an economic argument for increased military spending are not being truthful. According to a report from the Political Economic Research Institute at the University of Massachusetts, “federal spending on domestic programs in health care, education, clean energy and infrastructure creates more jobs, dollar for dollar, than military spending.”
This fight over defense spending that will take place behind the scenes over the next year is one that will either strengthen the power of the Left on Capitol Hill or sap it. The ever-increasing military budget is directly connected to the weapons of war that protesters confronted on the streets of American cities while protesting police murders.
It is not shocking that the greatest champions of increasing the military budget, like Senator Tom Cotton, were also the ones calling for those very weapons to be used against demonstrators.
The Pentagon’s bloated budget is a statement of our nation’s values. It is long past time we changed it — and them.