Last week, the Biden administration published its “skinny budget” proposals — essentially a wish list of the most important discretionary expenditures for the coming year. It’s divided roughly evenly between military and nonmilitary spending.
Nonmilitary spending comes in at $769 billion, marking a 16 percent increase over Trump-era expenditures on items such as environmental investments and public health infrastructure (the nearly $9 billion request for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is the largest request in two decades). After the past four years of deliberate neglect of nonmilitary public infrastructure, it will allow for a vital shoring up of a range of critical services, from health delivery systems to schools in low-income areas (the skinny budget request envisions a 40 percent increase in funding for the Department of Education). It requests billions of dollars to tackle climate change, a 20 percent increase in the dollars going to the Environmental Protection Agency and billions more to be channeled into research on cancers.
Compare this budget with Trump’s proposal for the year — a more than 9 percent cut in nonmilitary spending compared to 2020 levels, and an ongoing assault against any and every part of the environmental and public health structures — and the budget becomes a study in contrasts with Trumpian priorities.
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And, while critics have pointed out this only takes nonmilitary spending back up to where it would have been had Trump followed the norms of the past three decades, it comes on the heels of passage of the multitrillion-dollar American Rescue Plan, and during negotiations over the $2.3 trillion infrastructure package that Biden is pushing — to be delivered over an eight-year period and funded by 15 years of increased taxes on wealthy individuals and corporations. Between these three financial packages, there’s a lot of money in play — upwards of $6 trillion, or about one-quarter of what the total U.S. GDP was last year.
All of these investments will, if enacted, put the U.S. on a dramatically different path than the one that Trump took the country down, though far from a New Deal-type of transformation. And such change, in my book, can only be to the good.
Less positive is that the defense request (for the Defense Department and miscellaneous other military- and security-related expenditures) comes in at $753 billion, a slight increase over Trump-era spending.
Last summer, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont) and other progressives in Congress proposed cutting defense spending by 10 percent and redirecting the dollars to domestic programs. It was the latest effort by the left to shift spending priorities away from weapons of war and toward social programs. And, as usual, it went down to defeat. By huge margins, both houses of Congress rejected the idea, despite the fact that opinion polls show a growing number of Americans don’t want to increase military spending and nearly a third of respondents say too much is spent on the military. This week, when it became clear that Biden’s team wasn’t about to cut defense spending, a range of progressives, including Sanders and Rep. Ro Khanna (D-California), expressed serious concern. Sanders pointed out that the U.S. already spends more on its military than do the next 11 countries combined. Many progressive advocacy groups also came out against the increased military spending.
Partly, Biden’s problem here is that he is locked into a series of spending commitments negotiated long before he was elected president. Modernizing the country’s nuclear arsenal — a terrifying stash of weapons that’s already more than capable of ending most life on Earth if ever used — will cost an ungodly amount of money over the coming decades, and will only serve to make already astonishingly destructive weapons systems even more capable of inflicting catastrophic damage on the world. Yet the process over the past decades has basically been bought into by every president of the 21st century, and in Congress, there’s large bipartisan support for the upgrades. So, too, the purchase of hundreds of F-35 aircraft, the most expensive weapons procurement contract in U.S. military history, will cost many hundreds of billions of dollars over the coming decades.
But it’s not just that the past is dictating the present here. It’s also that Biden’s team in key ways buys into the ideology of the U.S. as the indispensable global policeman. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin was on the board of directors for weapons manufacturer Raytheon before he took his current job. Secretary of State Antony Blinken has financial ties to a venture capital fund with heavy investments in national security. In that sense, the proposal to increase spending on the military isn’t in the least surprising. It is, in fact, in keeping with a bipartisan history that has prioritized military spending over much else for decades, and that has seen a constant churn of senior figures dividing their careers between positions of political power and lucrative private sector jobs in the defense industry. Indeed, since World War II, U.S. military spending levels have largely been at the whim of what President Dwight D. Eisenhower termed a “military-industrial complex,” meaning that, regardless of need, there was, and remains, always extreme political pressure to increase the number of dollars channeled into weapons research and purchases, as well as the support systems that go into maintaining the world’s largest military.
Skinny budget requests are never the final word. They are the starting point to a conversation. At this moment, with the public supportive of big infrastructure investments and a reimagining and expansion of the social safety net, and with a plurality of Democrats in favor of reducing military spending, there is a chance to shift the direction of federal expenditures. Representative Khanna and other progressives who have voiced concern at defense budgets that only ever go up have a chance, in the coming months, to help reshape the conversation on levels of military spending in this pandemic moment. It is a conversation long overdue and one that the Biden administration, with its progressive bent, ought to be ready to constructively engage in.