The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The beginning of the end for ever-rising Pentagon budgets

An aerial view of the Pentagon in March 2008. (Charles Dharapak/AP)

When Congress returns to work, progressives in the House and Senate will launch the first round of what will be a central debate in the coming years: challenging ever-rising Pentagon budgets. After years of virtually reflexive bipartisan support for shoveling more money at the military, progressives, led by Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), as well as Reps. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) and Mark Pocan (D-Wis.), will push for a 10 percent cut in the Pentagon’s top-line budget. The $74 billion in savings would instead be used for distressed communities’ vital needs.

The president, of course, has boasted about the money he has shoveled to the Pentagon, delighting particularly in the baroque weapons he calls “incredible equipment” and a new “super duper missile.” Democrats have largely gone along, pushing only for a bit larger piece of the pie for domestic purposes. The Sanders-Lee-Pocan amendment marks the end of that dance. As Sanders summarized, “It is time to fundamentally change our national priorities. In the midst of the worst public health crisis in over 100 years and the most severe economic downturn since the Great Depression, we do not need to authorize $740.5 billion in bombs, weapons, fighter jets and endless wars.”

Just as in most states and localities, spending on police and prisons outweighs what the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. described as “programs of social uplift,” so the Pentagon’s bloated budget consumes an ever-increasing portion of federal discretionary spending. The Defense Department and related appropriations such as the Energy Department’s nuclear budget now comprise more than half of the national discretionary budget. Last year’s $732 billion in defense spending exceeded the next 10 largest defense budgets — including China and Russia — combined.

This money continues to flow even as the Pentagon remains riddled with waste, fraud and abuse, with billions upon billions in wasteful spending. And that’s not counting the more than $6.4 trillion that has been squandered in the endless wars in the Middle East and Asia which have only added to our insecurity.

As the pandemic has shown so starkly, military force has no answer for the rising international security challenges we now face — emergent diseases; extreme weather and climate change; destabilizing inequality and poverty; corrosive corruption; and crime. These demand investment in science, diplomacy, development, enforcement of white-collar crimes and so on — not endless wars on the other side of the world.

The folly of our current posture is now confronting questioning from across the political spectrum. The libertarian Charles Koch Institute calls for moving to a “grand strategy of restraint” that would allow deep cuts in military spending. The Moral Budget from the progressive Poor People’s Campaign calls for “$350 billion in annual military spending cuts that would make the nation and the world more secure.”

The cuts across the board of the Sanders-Lee-Pocan resolution, in fact, echo the strategy employed by the Republican president who knew the military the best. Dwight D. Eisenhower, who warned Americans that a military-industrial complex would generate threats to justify expanded budgets, kept military spending under control in his administration by putting a lid on Pentagon budgets. That forced the services, the arms contractors, the lobbyists and the fixers to fight each other for who got what under the lid. The resulting donnybrook gave Congress inside information on waste and fraud that might otherwise have gone unreported.

Here, as elsewhere, a newly energized progressive movement, and emboldened leadership in the Congress are forcing the issue. Biden has yet to speak forcefully on the subject of military spending. In the past, Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) have generally signed off on rising military spending in trade for domestic spending; now, Schumer has endorsed the Sanders amendment.

The economic and human devastation wrought by the coronavirus pandemic — and the grotesque bungling of the administration in face of the threat — demands new priorities, to suppress the pandemic, put people back to work safely in the short term, and to address the glaring shortcomings exposed by the threat. Those deficiencies include our impoverished public health capacity, the absence of universal day care and sick leave, the lack of an organized workers’ voices, institutionalized racial disparities and more.

The Sanders-Lee-Pocan amendments aren’t likely to pass. They will be hard-pressed even to get the support of a majority of Democrats. But, in the long run, the Pentagon is not likely to escape the growing imperative of change. And thanks to these amendments, legislators won’t be able to hide what side of history they are on.

Read more:

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David Ignatius: How the Pentagon is struggling to stay out of politics