Serving in Congress is supposed to be about making choices to benefit all Americans. Where is the money most needed? How can we maximize our dollars, and help as many people as possible?
But we seemingly never ask those questions when it comes to military spending. Perhaps that’s why, just days before unemployment benefits and eviction protections expire for millions of worried Americans, as we are trying to figure out how to safely educate our children and combat a deadly virus that has already infected more than 3.8 million people in this country and killed more than 140,000, Congress is scheduled to pass the largest defense department budget in our history — to the tune of $740 billion.
Compare that number, to which there is hardly any objection from the Republican side of the aisle, to Congress’ normal tightfisted approach to the needs of the American people. “How are we going to pay for that?” remains the favorite refrain when progressives suggest that children shouldn’t starve, families shouldn’t be evicted, or the public should have health care during a pandemic.
In 2019 — before the pandemic started — the budget of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention was 1/90th the size of the Department of Defense's budget. This year, that gap has only widened further, with the Pentagon budget totaling more than 92 times the $8 billion budget for the CDC. In fact, the ballooning defense budget even exceeds the cost of Medicare, which totaled $644 billion in 2019.
And in a new poll from Data for Progress, 57 percent of people said they would support cutting the defense budget by 10 percent and reallocating the funds to the CDC and other domestic needs. In the same poll, half of the Republicans polled said they would support a similar defense budget cut to pay for health care, housing, education and combating the COVID-19 pandemic.
The record-breaking defense budget seems further out of step for a summer during which hundreds of thousands of protesters are calling on political leaders to demilitarize law enforcement and reinvest that money in community-based care programs — and it comes only weeks after the National Guard used tear gas on hundreds of peaceful protesters at the White House to clear the way for President Donald Trump’s church photo-op.
But still, somehow, there’s unlimited money for the Pentagon, even though the U.S. defense budget is already the largest in the world and it’s larger than the military spending of the countries with next 11 largest militaries, combined.
Even in Monday’s congressional debate, this dynamic of letting the military have whatever it wants with no oversight from Congress continued to play out. Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., wrongfully claimed our amendment to cut the defense budget by 10 percent “would undermine … the readiness of our troops, on air, on land and at sea,” and Rep. Mike Turner, R-Ohio, argued the amendment would make it “unsafe” for troops serving our nation.
Let’s be clear: our amendment would do no such thing. This amendment isn’t an across-the-board cut: it is written to protect military personnel, the department’s civilian personnel and the defense health programs from cuts, precisely because, while the Pentagon’s budget has swelled, many of our men and women in uniform still make barely enough to live. (Compare that with the average salary of Pentagon contractors, who earn nearly $200,000 a year.)
And, given that the Pentagon itself returned $80 billion to the Treasury in unused funds between 2013 and 2018, it’s hardly credible to claim that a 10 percent cut would leave our troops exposed. It would, though, allow the Pentagon wide discretion on how to reduce its budget and force it to finally reckon with decades of blank checks to defense contractors, misused agency slush funds and billions of dollars in bureaucratic waste.
Year after year, money has kept flowing to the Defense Department, despite the fact that, for nearly three decades, they refused to comply with the 1990 law requiring every federal agency to undergo an annual financial audit.
A 2015 study, which the Pentagon commissioned and then buried, identified $125 billion in waste. And, after years of pressure from Congress, the Pentagon finally underwent its first formal audit in 2017 – which it promptly failed. Since 2015, the defense budget has nonetheless swelled by $180 billion — despite no action being taken to address the rampant waste identified.
It’s become increasingly clear to us that the Pentagon will take any opportunity to abuse the understanding of the American public if Congress continues to rubberstamp the Pentagon’s obscene budget requests without ever demanding any accountability or transparency for where the money is going.
Congress has an opportunity to finally cut the Pentagon budget when the major threats to the safety and security of the American people lie elsewhere, and to spend those dollars where they’re truly needed right now.
The Progressive Caucus, which we co-chair, supports the Pocan-Lee-Jayapal amendment, which would cut the Pentagon budget by 10 percent. This amendment — which has also been introduced by Sen. Bernie Sanders in the Senate and is supported by Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer — would save $74 billion, which is more than the total budgets of the CDC, the Environmental Protection Agency, the National Park Service and the Department of Housing and Urban Development combined.
In the coming weeks, as Congress considers our next package to address the coronavirus crisis, we expect to hear a lot of discussion from the Republicans about what our nation can and cannot afford. But the truth is that it all comes down to priorities.
Every dollar wasted at the Pentagon is a dollar not being spent on test kits, personal protective equipment or contact tracing. Every handout to Lockheed Martin or Northrop Grumman is money that could have been spent on ending this pandemic, keeping small businesses afloat and staving off an economic meltdown.
We hope our colleagues will join us in voting to cut the Pentagon budget, so we can redirect funding to where it’s needed in our communities. If Congress moves forward with an obscene, indefensible $740 billion handout to the Pentagon, progressives will have no choice but to vote no.