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Democrats Are Making a Devil’s Bargain on Pentagon Funding. It’s Not Paying Off.

Progressives can’t win unless Pentagon spending is put on the chopping block.

Blue Angels jets fly over the sky during the Fleet Week in San Francisco, California, United States on October 7, 2022.

The year 2022 confirmed yet again that accepting massive military budget increases in exchange for a smattering of social benefits funding — a common devil’s bargain struck by Democrats in Congress — will never deliver the kind of world we dream of.

The military budget deal just reached by Congress will put Pentagon spending at $858 billionmore than $118 billion higher than when President Biden came into office, and more than $180 billion higher than the last budget approved under President Obama. That increase would have been more than enough to cover the costs of the entire Build Back Better agenda.

By comparison with the ever-growing Pentagon budget, wins on big progressive spending priorities in the last two years have been hit or miss, with plenty of notable misses. Political fortunes for the successful Inflation Reduction Act and the failed Build Back Better plan were widely understood to rest on a couple of high-profile swing votes, but a larger and longer-running political dynamic was also at play.

Members of Congress who favor progressive spending priorities regularly make deals to accept big military increases in exchange for a smattering of domestic spending increases, a pattern that’s set to play out again this year. The result of this tacit understanding in Congress has been that the priorities in the annual discretionary budget have remained frozen, with more than half of the annual budget going to the military in a typical year.

With the exception of pandemic relief, even when the budget pie grows, domestic spending never takes a significantly larger portion. To win more progressive priorities, that balance must shift. Pentagon spending has to be put on the chopping block — both because the military budget is far too high, and because the current dealmaking consensus means an eternally limited budget share for progressive priorities.

Progressive Goals Lose When the Pentagon Gains

It’s been a mixed year for progressive spending priorities. The Inflation Reduction Act, the first major act by Congress to address climate change, was a historic moment and a huge win for progressives — but it was also far too small to address the massive challenge posed by the climate crisis.

Congress allowed the expansion of the Child Tax Credit, which helped cut child poverty in half, to lapse. Hopes to reinstate it in the current Congress seem to have been dashed by its exclusion from the bipartisan budget deal announced this week. And despite massive efforts by organizers and a historic opportunity as the pandemic wreaked havoc on our lives and our economy, there has been no meaningful movement on universal preschool and child care or on expanded health care, two of the big proposals of the failed Build Back Better agenda.

And after an exciting year for organized labor, with Starbucks unions cropping up everywhere and the Amazon Labor Union fighting back against corporate union-busting, the National Labor Relations Board that protects union activities and has been starved for cash for years is celebrating its first budget increase in nine years — a $25 million increase that amounts to a rounding error compared to the Pentagon budget.

Meanwhile, the Pentagon keeps getting budget increase after budget increase.

How Pentagon Spending Gets a Pass

The $858 billion budget that Congress just approved for the military, on a bipartisan basis, is part of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). The NDAA is widely considered “must-pass” legislation, having passed with wide bipartisan support every year for more than 60 years. No other piece of legislation except the budget deal (and possibly the debt limit) is regarded as required in the same way.

In fact, the NDAA isn’t as must-pass as it may seem. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy threatened to sink this year’s bill if President Biden didn’t remove the requirement for service members to get COVID-19 vaccines — despite the fact that Pentagon leaders supported the mandate. Yet the bill hasn’t faced serious opposition based on a major fight over budget priorities.

There is no shortage of reasons why so many members continue to support the NDAA and Pentagon budget increases in general. Many in Congress still conflate military spending with security, and think there can never be too much of it — or else it’s purely political maneuvering to avoid being seen as weak on defense. And with Pentagon contractors sprinkling campaign contributions and federally funded jobs on congressional districts like so much fairy dust, there are plenty of politically expedient reasons to vote for a Pentagon budget increase.

But a less recognized part of the problem is the now-ingrained practice of trading off higher Pentagon spending for more domestic spending. The commonly accepted practice of negotiating bigger Pentagon budgets in exchange for a smattering of smaller domestic spending increases has greased the wheels of politically treacherous budget negotiations for years. It has also meant that Pentagon budget increases sail through with far too little scrutiny, even at a time like now when the agency has just failed its fifth audit.

It Wasn’t Always Like This

The long-accepted pattern of trading higher Pentagon spending in exchange for higher domestic spending solidified with the 2011 Budget Control Act, which explicitly locked in shares of the annual discretionary budget for military and non-military purposes.

The Budget Control Act locked in budget patterns that were in place at the height of the post-9/11 wars, a time of historically high Pentagon spending. But the legislation expired in 2021, and the negotiations have stayed stuck in the same mold.

Fifteen years before the Budget Control Act was passed, Congress had just completed a historic drawdown of the Pentagon budget. In the years after the end of the Cold War, it was widely agreed that the U.S. could pull back militarily, and the nation did go through a period of decreased military spending. That ended with the post-9/11 wars — but now that the U.S. has officially ended those wars, pulling the last troops out of Afghanistan last year, no military cutbacks have materialized. It’s the first time on record that no “peace dividend” resulted from the end of a major U.S. war.

The Pentagon Is a Losing Trade

Year after year, the saga continues: Democrats accept a big Pentagon increase in exchange for a smattering of little increases that even put together, don’t quite add up to what the Pentagon gets.

The progressive movement has had some wins, but in many ways, it has stalled on major spending priorities. The failure to seriously take on Pentagon spending is one of the reasons.

That’s beginning to change. In recent years, progressive movements and progressive champions in Congress have begun to take on Pentagon spending. The Poor People’s Campaign and the People Over Pentagon coalition have connected the need for a lower Pentagon budget to winning other progressive priorities. This year, a majority of House Democrats voted to remove $37 billion that the House Armed Services Committee had voted to add to the Pentagon budget. Also this year, Representatives Barbara Lee and Representative Mark Pocan introduced The People Over Pentagon Act, to cut $100 billion from the Pentagon budget and reinvest it in domestic priorities.

Those efforts haven’t been successful yet. But they’re necessary both ethically and practically. The Pentagon is not just another government agency. It’s the embodiment of a U.S. foreign policy that prizes militarism and force over diplomacy and multilateralism. It’s the agency that executed the wars after the 9/11 attacks, leading to more than 900,000 deaths. The list of ongoing damage done by the Pentagon runs long, from poisoned drinking water, to complicity in unjust wars and unaddressed harm to its own service members.

Practically, fighting to cut the military budget is also necessary because politics as usual will keep leading to the same results as usual. If progressives want more wins on progressive investments ranging from health care to child care to climate change, the Pentagon budget has to become a target.

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