Deficit Hawks Are Enabling the Next US War

Back in April, progressives in Congress succeeded in halting a vote that included a military budget increase. In July, most of those same progressives — including powerhouses like Reps. Barbara Lee and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez — voted to support a military budget that was slightly larger even than what they’d rejected in April. What changed?

As Democratic and White House leadership announced a backroom budget compromise and put it up for a vote in July, congressional progressives faced a seemingly impossible choice: They could vote to support new spending on programs that alleviate poverty and create opportunity, but they would also have to support more spending on the U.S. war machine. Or, they could vote against new Pentagon funds and risk massive budget cuts to programs like housing and food assistance, education and job training.

Most progressive members of the House — with very few exceptions, including Representatives Ilhan Omar and Ayanna Pressley — chose to approve funding increases to $632 billion for critical domestic programs and grudgingly accept a $738 billion Pentagon budget that is larger than it was at the height of the Vietnam war (in today’s dollars), and growing. The deal continues the U.S. tradition of spending more than half of the federal discretionary budget on war and the military.

President Trump signed the legislation, seemingly locking in mega-budgets for the Pentagon for 2020 and 2021. With funds for domestic programs held hostage to an ever-larger Pentagon budget, is it even possible to stop the flood of funds to the Pentagon’s war chest?

The Tea Party Started It

How did we end up in a situation where some of the most antiwar Congress members feel they must vote for a pro-war budget? The reason goes back to a now-obscure manufactured crisis from 2011, and the resulting compromise legislation that created a virtual straitjacket for budgeting for the next 10 years. Back in 2011, the country was beginning to emerge from its greatest economic crisis since the Great Depression, thanks in large part to an infusion of federal government spending. But as the economy slowly bounced back (albeit with far more “recovery” for the well-off than for the poor or working class), support for government austerity policies grew. The Tea Party movement was born, and its members seemed to care about only one thing: cutting government spending.

Against this backdrop, the U.S. faced a usually routine occurrence. The national debt was about to reach the debt ceiling — an arbitrary limit on the national debt that Congress sets and changes on a fairly regular basis. While the number may be arbitrary, the consequences of breaking the debt ceiling are real, and could range from more expensive borrowing to a global financial crisis (since U.S. debt is a popular investment around the world). Usually, once the debt ceiling was reached, Congress voted to raise the ceiling with relatively little drama.

In 2011, the U.S. debt again neared the debt ceiling. But this time, instead of simply raising the ceiling as usual, deficit hawks used the debt ceiling to their advantage. With the new Tea Party movement in full swing and split control of Congress, these conservatives were able to demand drastic action to reduce deficits in the immediate future, in exchange for raising the ceiling.

After various false starts at negotiations, the result of the 2011 debt ceiling face-off was the Budget Control Act of 2011, a truly destructive law that passed with broad bipartisan support. The law set spending limits for the next 10 years, but it didn’t set just one limit per year. It set two separate limits for each of the next 10 years: one for the military, and one for everything else. This was how lawmakers ensured that the Pentagon budget would never take the brunt of the budget cuts. It also ensured that if anyone wanted to lift the cap and spend more on domestic programs, there would be an automatic negotiation to lift the Pentagon cap ever higher as well.

The original 2011 budget caps didn’t stick for long. Beginning in 2012, Congress passed a series of laws raising the spending caps for both military and non-military spending. Each time, negotiations centered on allowing larger Pentagon budgets in exchange for new domestic spending, but the balance of Pentagon to domestic spending always favored the Pentagon. That’s the dynamic that new progressive leaders faced when the budget process began this year.

What the 2019 Budget Deal Does, and Doesn’t Do

The budget deal provides a 2020 budget of $738 billion for the military, and $632 billion for everything else, including food and housing assistance, education, job training and more.

And it raises the debt ceiling, allowing more borrowing and averting the possible consequences of a U.S. government that essentially can’t pay its bills. That’s key to protecting the world economy from another recession.

The bill also allows the original debt-inspired legislation from 2011 to expire on schedule, in 2021. That means that the next time Congress debates total spending levels — for the 2022 budget — the incentives to accept outsized Pentagon increases in order to secure domestic programs will be much weaker.

The budget deal sets only top spending levels, leaving all sorts of details to be sorted out later. For example, will the Pentagon increase allow for investment in dangerous so-called “low-yield” nuclear weapons? Will Democrats succeed in placing any new legal limits on funding for a border wall? These questions and many more remain to be answered.

What Next?

If there’s any lesson to be learned from the last 10 painful years — and the fact that progressive stars like Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez saw no better option than to support runaway Pentagon spending in the recent budget vote — it’s that Congress should never again tie its hands by passing arbitrary spending limits, as it did in 2011. Taking that lesson one step further, we should consider a permanent break from the whole concept of a debt ceiling. If there’s no debt ceiling, we can’t break it, and it can no longer serve as a cudgel for members of Congress to demand spending cuts. The debt ceiling does far more harm than good.

Thanks to the expiration of the 2011 Budget Control Act, congressional progressives may soon see an opportunity to do some budgeting that finally reflects progressive priorities. It’s not too early to begin to demand a truly progressive budget, including a sensible Pentagon budget. In the words of Rep. Omar, “I cannot in good conscience support a bill that continues to throw billions of dollars at endless wars and Pentagon contractors.” It’s about time for a serious challenge to the Pentagon’s mindset of all-you-can-spend warmongering.