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Nuclear Weapons

Politics of the Defense Budget

by Terrell J. Starr
January 22, 2021

One of the toughest arguments any member of Congress can make is calling for cuts to defense spending, no matter how small. It doesn’t matter if it is a Democrat or a Republican, few elected officials see political currency in being perceived as taking resources away from American troops protecting the homeland.

Dwight Eisenhower argued in 1961 that the military-industrial complex would balloon to the point where defense spending will leave voids for domestic priorities. Decades later, both major parties have yet to agree on how to best rein in Pentagon waste.

The pandemic, however, is challenging members of Congress to rethink their stances. Bullets can’t kill COVID-19 and we certainly can’t nuke our ways out of this health disaster, either. More than 400,000 Americans have died as a result of the coronavirus, and the Biden Administration warns that we could see up to half a million dead by the end of February. By comparison, 405,000 American’s died in World War II.

man in field of small American flags

Chris Duncan, whose 75 year old mother Constance died from COVID on her birthday, photographs a COVID Memorial Project installation of 20,000 American flags on the National Mall on September 22, 2020, in Washington, DC. The flags were displayed on the grounds of the Washington Monument facing the White House. As of January 2021, the United States has lost more than 400,000 lives in the COVID-19 pandemic, more than any other nation.

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Beyond the pandemic, this year we have seen the militarization of local policing destabilize communities by responding to peaceful protests with force seen in war zones. There is no question that America has the most powerful military in human history, but Washington’s adversaries have found that disinformation campaigns and cyber-attacks on our weakening political infrastructures more than make up for the mismatch in military might. Yet, most elected officials and policymakers still think security means weapons of war that cannot protect us against COVID-19. Billions of dollars that could be used to protect us against pandemics, climate change, and asymmetrical attacks are being wasted on a Pentagon that can’t pass an audit. 

news conference

FBI Special Agent in Charge of the Pittsburgh field office Michael Christman, right, accompanied by Assistant Attorney General for the National Security Division John Demers, left, and FBI Deputy Director David Bowdich, second from right, speak at a news conference at the Department of Justice, on October 19, 2020, in Washington, DC. The Justice Department announced an indictment against six Russia GRU officers charged with engaging in a series of hacking and malware deployment operations to attack other countries' infrastructure, elections, and other actions designed to further Russia's interests.

Andrew Harnik - Pool/Getty Images

But with a new administration and hundreds of thousands dead, elected officials may finally be ready to divest from wasteful spending and invest in non-military methods to secure America. There was promising momentum for a 10 percent cut that ultimately failed in July 2020 but resulted in a historic show of opposition to bloated Pentagon spending. A week later, representatives Barbara Lee and Mark Pocan co-founded the Defense Spending Reduction Caucus with the goal of cutting defense spending by at least 10 percent. Lee and Pocan said in interviews with Outrider Magazine they are optimistic that the Biden Administration would be amenable to a 10 percent cut if they make a good argument for it. What is moving in the new Caucasus' favor is public interest in budgetary priorities for domestic issues such as healthcare, support for small and mid-sized businesses struggling during the pandemic, and immunization against COVID-19all of which could be better funded with a small reduction in Pentagon spending. 

hair dresser and young customer

A stylist from Grey Matter LA washes a young client's hair on a rooftop parking lot amid the novel coronavirus pandemic, August 4, 2020, in Los Angeles, California. Like many small businesses, Grey Matter had to get creative to keep their business open amid the pandemic. California on July 13, 2020,  drastically rolled back its reopening plans and ordered all indoor restaurants, bars, and cinemas to close again. Churches, gyms, shopping malls, hair salons, and non-essential offices have had to shut indoor operations in half of the state's worst-hit and most densely populated counties, including Los Angeles.

VALERIE MACON/AFP via Getty Images

The Defense Spending Reduction Caucus, which has close to 20 Congress members, functions as a working group brainstorming how to best convince their colleagues to support the 10 percent threshold and listening to their concerns. Beyond the fear of not supporting troops, many congressmen and women worry about the defense industry jobsand the lobbythey could lose if they vote to reduce Pentagon spending. Reuters reported in November that even if Democrats got a majority in the House and Senate (which they did), they will still be wary of cutting defense spending because they see divesting from military budgets as taking jobs away from their constituents. Also keep in mind that Lloyd Austin, Biden’s defense secretary pick, joined the board of United Technologies Corp in 2016. Since it merged with Raytheon, Austin has a seat on the board of one of the country’s most powerful defense contractors,” according to Mother Jones. Raytheon pulled in more than $16 billion in federal government contracts, the fourth-most of any company, Mother Jones added. None of this means Austin isn’t open to a cut, but it reveals how connected military contractors are with government officials who have key decision-making power in such matters.

“It's always tough because people want to bring money home, but right now you really can't easily, under the rules, but this is one area where people feel like they can,” Pocan told me. He said that Congress members should be asking what the economy will look like in 20 or 40 years in their districts and in the country as a whole. Pocan, Lee, and other members will be more specific about which weapons systems they want to cut funding for and be ready to educate their colleagues on how divesting from them can be converted to dollars for other needs in their districts.  “We probably should be exploring things like solar, wind, alternative energies that keep dollars in America,” he continued. “We should be figuring out how to bring manufacturers back to the country so you could have jobs in your district in a more diversified way. But really one of the worst ways, the least bang for your buck, is thinking that somehow defense contractors are equivalent to prosperity in your district.”

man holds sign at protest

Climate change protesters block traffic during a protest to shut down D.C. on September 23, 2019, in Washington, DC. The protesters were for urging climate action and wanted the reallocation of the budget away from the military to fund a Green New Deal.

Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Many people do not spend time considering how much military we actually need. Neta C. Crawford, a co-director at the Costs of War Project at Brown University, told Outrider Magazine that her years of research into U.S. military budgets found that defense spending doesn’t effectively produce jobs. The project found, for example, that $1 billion in military spending creates roughly 11,200 jobs, compared with 26,700 in education, 16,800 in clean energy, and 17,200 in health care. The reasons for the difference include costs being lower in these sectors than for defense contractors, making for more salaries for more people. Also, the aforementioned sectors are more labor-intensive and require funding for human power rather than funds for equipment and materials, according to the project's findings.

What really needs to happen next, Crawford argues, is a complete analysis of the interests of the United States, the threats to those interests, and then how to respond to them. She believes the results would find we probably don't need as many troops in the Persian Gulf. Those troops levels could be cut and so could the aircraft carrier presence, and all of the other ships that escort aircraft carriers.

“Then we could say to ourselves, ‘Okay, what do we need in Europe?’ Well, we may need fewer troops. We may need to rethink the bases in the United States.”

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Cutting the Pentagon budget isn't only a budgetary challenge. It’s a psychological one. Old habits die hard and so do people’s beliefs on what makes them safe. Both Democrats and Republicans have leaned into “tough on crime” slogans to win elections and none of them want to be seen as weak on public safety. The same is true for protecting the homeland. Ironically, such thinking is compromising America’s coffers anyway. In November of 2019, Crawford wrote in a report that post-9/11 obligations from 2001 through 2020 have cost the United States $6.4 trillion, including $1 trillion for caring for troops injured during combat.  The Pentagon is the only government agency not to pass an audit. Officials say the Department of Defense may not pass one until 2027. Meanwhile, military waste has been well-documented. 

Pocan has been in communication with Biden’s team and is optimistic that his administration will be open to cuts. It also helps that Jon Ossoff and Rev. Raphael Warnock won their U.S. Senate races, giving Democrats a razor-thin edge to carry out their policy ideas. Bernie Sanders, also claimed the Budget Committee chairmanship and may push the Senate to find a pathway to cuts all sides can agree on. In October, House Armed Services Chair Adam Smith (D-Wash.) told POLITICO that there would be a huge intra-party clash over the matter if Democrats won both chambers in November. 

man speaks into microphone

House Armed Services Committee ranking member Rep. Adam Smith (D-WA) questions witnesses during a hearing in the Rayburn House Office Building on Capitol Hill on April 12, 2018, in Washington, DC. The Trump administration's top war-fighters, U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joseph Dunford, testified before the committee about their FY2019 defense budget request.

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

"There has to be a national security strategy behind those cuts," Smith said. "It can't just be, 'Well, I'd rather spend the money elsewhere. I don't like the Defense Department. I'm going to cut their budget. You have to explain to me that, OK, are we not going to have as many troops in Asia to deter North Korea from invading South Korea and China from invading Taiwan? Are we going to reduce even further our footprint in Africa and then cede that area more to China and to Russian mercenaries?" he added. "What are the implications there? Is there an argument for that? I want to have that debate and I want to have that discussion."

Though a 10 percent cut to the Pentagon would be historic, budget experts like Crawford and others believe far more can be divested from military spending. The Center for International Policy released a report in 2019 that called for 1.2 trillion in defense cuts over the next ten years. The biggest cut of $320 billion calls for phasing out the Overseas Contingency Operations fund, a slush fund for unexpected costs of overseas wars. Other reductions call for canceling the Ground-based Midcourse Defense system that is supposed to shoot down incoming ICBMs, but has an atrocious test record and canceling the new replacement for our current ICBMs.

military and civilian leaders testify before Congress

U.S. Secretary of Defense Mark Esper and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley take their seats as they arrive for a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing concerning the Department of Defense budget in the Hart Senate Office Building on March 4, 2020, in Washington, DC. Esper and Milley testified about the Defense Authorization Request for Fiscal Year 2021 and the Future Years Defense Program.

Drew Angerer/Getty Images

As Pocan reflects on the effort last July to cut the Pentagon budget, he sees hope that his colleagues are ready to adjust their thinking on security because of how defenseless their constituents have been during the pandemic. 

“I think one of the biggest things we learned is that people are open to this because they realize we spend way too much on the Pentagon that could go to other things,” he said. “When people have problems with their constituents having healthcare or want more money for education, or realize that we need more affordable housing, they realize that every dollar that you spend on the Pentagon is a dollar you won't have for one of those other areas.

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