Robert Reich knows a thing or two about federal budgets, and the economist who has served in three presidential administrations says there is something wrong with Joe Biden’s plan to increase Pentagon spending above the levels proposed by former President Trump.
“The Pentagon already spends: $740,000,000,000 every year, $2,000,000,000 every day, $1,000,000 every minute,” says the former secretary of labor. “The last thing we need is a bigger military budget.”
Unfortunately, that’s what the president is seeking. This has led Reich to announce that he is “frankly disappointed that Biden’s proposing $715 billion for the Pentagon—an increase over Trump’s $704 billion defense budget—instead of moving back toward Obama-Biden era levels of defense spending, or less.”
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“Or less” is the right direction, especially at a moment when Republican deficit hawks are circling in preparation for attacks on domestic spending that is essential for working families who have been battered by the coronavirus pandemic.
Biden’s $1.5 trillion budget plan has much to recommend it. The president is seeking significant increases in funding for education and proposing to invest in criminal justice and police reform, combating gun violence, and other worthy efforts. “However, despite the positive investments in these programs,” says Representative Barbara Lee, “I was incredibly disappointed at the significant increase in Pentagon spending to even higher levels than the Trump administration. With so many people across the country struggling to make ends meet, the last thing we need to do is increase investment in wasteful Pentagon spending.” Noting that “this budget adds twelve billion new dollars for weapons of war,” the longtime critic of endless wars asks us to “just think how that same amount could be used to invest in jobs, health care and fighting inequality—especially as we fight back a once in a century public health and economic crisis.”
Lee was once a lonely voice on behalf of cutting Pentagon spending. But the California Democrat now has allies in powerful places. “I have serious concerns,” says Senate Budget Committee chair Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), “about the proposed $753 billion budget request for the bloated Pentagon—a $12.3 billion increase compared to the last year of the Trump Administration. At a time when the U.S. already spends more on the military than the next 12 nations combined, it is time for us to take a serious look at the massive cost over-runs, the waste and fraud that currently exists at the Pentagon.”
Congressional Progressive Caucus chair Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.) is blunter: “We’re in the midst of a crisis that has left millions of families unable to afford food, rent, and bills. But at the same time, we’re dumping billions of dollars into a bloated Pentagon budget. Don’t increase defense spending. Cut it—and invest that money into our communities.”
That’s not a radical response. When Data for Progress surveyed voters nationwide last year about budget priorities, 56 percent supported cutting the Pentagon budget by 10 percent to pay for fighting the coronavirus pandemic and funding education, health care, and housing. Sixty-nine percent of Democrats expressed enthusiasm for the proposed cut, which was striking. Even more striking was the 51 percent support it got from Republicans.
When the idea was raised in Congress in July of 2020, 93 members of the House of Representatives voted for a 10 percent cut, as did 23 senators. That wasn’t a win, obviously, but it was a groundbreaking show of support for reduced spending on the military-industrial complex.
Can congressional progressives build on that base of support to alter priorities in the Biden budget? It won’t be easy. Centrist Democrats will be cautious about cuts, and Republicans can be expected to demagogue the issue. But progressive caucus members have had success in pushing the new administration to abandon some of the worst Pentagon initiatives of the Trump years. For instance, a new letter signed by 70 House members commends Biden for “[his] first steps toward ending U.S. support for the war in Yemen, including announcing an end to U.S. military participation in offensive Saudi actions; a review of weapons sales to Saudi Arabia for use in its six-year air war in Yemen; and a revocation of President Trump’s terrorism designation against the Houthis, with the express purpose of averting a hunger crisis.” (The letter urges the president to go further and “use all available U.S. leverage with the Saudi regime to demand an immediate and unconditional end to its blockade, which threatens 16 million malnourished Yemenis living on the brink of famine.”)
One of the key movers in the fight to end US support for the war in Yemen, Representative Mark Pocan (D-Wis.), thinks the time is right to push the administration and Congress for a broader rethink of spending priorities.
“A proposed increase of $13 billion in defense spending is far too much given [the Pentagon budget’s] already rapid growth at a time of relative peace,” says the Wisconsin Democrat who with Lee cochairs the Defense Spending Reduction Caucus. “We cannot best build back better if the Pentagon’s budget is larger than it was under Donald Trump.”
Pocan has ideas for where to make cuts. For instance, he says “we must stop funding for former President Trump’s excessive $1.5 trillion nuclear modernization plan and complete a new nuclear posture review as each of the last three presidents have done. The United States has far more nuclear weapons than are needed for our security, so let’s stop funding the waste.” In addition to arguing for “no new spending on nuclear weapons,” Pocan points to the need to audit Pentagon waste and accountability measures to eliminate slush funds.
That’s a message that will resonate with the American people, says Representative Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.), who maintains that there is a growing awareness that “it is simply inexcusable to continue to shower weapons manufacturers with hundreds of billions of dollars in Pentagon waste.”
Advocacy groups share the view that this is precisely the right time for members of Congress to make the case for tightening the bloated Pentagon budget. “Following a year of deadly proof that throwing money at the Pentagon does not keep us safe from modern day threats, it is unconscionable to not only extend Trump’s spending spree, but to add to it,” says Win Without War’s Erica Fein. “Deadly pandemics, climate crisis, desperate inequality—the greatest threats to global security do not have military solutions. Yet while we’re repeatedly asked how we will afford to address these truly existential threats, the same question is never asked of adding to the Pentagon’s already-overstuffed coffers. Let’s be clear: continuing to funnel near-limitless resources into the pockets of arms manufacturers while underfunding public goods only undermines the safety of people in the United States and around the world.”
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