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Robert Weissman is the president of Public Citizen. Savannah Wooten is a Pentagon spending reduction advocate at Public Citizen. This column was produced for Progressive Perspectives, which is run by The Progressive magazine, and distributed by Tribune News Service.
Why do we continue to spend billions of federal funds on expanding an already bloated military? Aren’t there better things — like health care, housing and the environment — we could be spending that money on?
Congress doesn’t seem to think so. Despite a year of negotiations over President Joe Biden’s Build Back Better spending plan, Republicans and Democratic holdouts like Sen. Joe Manchin, D-West Virginia, continue to criticize the package, citing its breadth and cost as the primary barriers to their support.
Yet in early December, a bipartisan majority in both the House and the Senate approved a $768 billion Pentagon spending bill. The cost was more than four times larger than the Build Better Act was projected to be. The fact that politicians can support such a massive defense spending while opposing the Build Back Better Act out of concern for raising the national debt is a ludicrous double standard, especially when Build Back Better is paid for by new taxes and revenue and will add nothing to the national debt.
The three quarters of a trillion dollars in Pentagon spending, by contrast, will in part be paid for by larger deficits.
The Pentagon’s budget takes up roughly 50 percent of the nation’s annual discretionary spending. That alone should draw scrutiny, but lawmakers have been trained to follow Manchin’s rhetorical lead instead — nickel and diming programs that could actually meaningfully change Americans’ lives while letting the sleeping giant of U.S. militarism continue to grow.
A particularly egregious example of this played out on the national stage last year. In early 2021, global health experts estimated that a one-time U.S. government investment of $25 billion into COVID-19 vaccine manufacturing could support a scale-up significant enough to inoculate the entire world within one year. But the Biden administration and Congress alike have yet to consider funding such a plan — an investment that may have prevented the omicron variant from ever coming into existence.
Those sincerely concerned about the amount of federal spending, as Manchin claims to be, should want to capture Pentagon excess and funnel it back into the types of programs included in the initial Build Back Better package, like expanding Medicare coverage or providing free community college for all Americans.
And we should be clear that this is not about national security, it’s about putting more money into the pockets of defense contractors, who collect more than half of all Pentagon spending.
There are no greater threats to national security right now than the pandemic and fast-approaching catastrophic climate change. Yet neither pandemic nor climate spending benefit from the “whatever they want — and more” treatment of Pentagon spending.
At a bare minimum, we should demand an end to the massive waste at the Pentagon. This includes more than $100 billion in administrative waste, according to the Pentagon itself. Unfathomable sums are thrown at needless and/or ineffective weapons such as the F-35, and tens of billions are squandered on overpriced contractors to perform jobs that should be done by government employees.
Cutting the Pentagon’s budget and reinvesting the savings into anti-poverty, climate justice and public health programming would reap economic and human rewards far and wide.
It’s time to end Pentagon spending hypocrisy and invest in what the United States really needs.