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How Progressives Can Force Biden to Cut the Military Budget



-by Medea Benjamin and Marcy Winograd


A month before the vote on the federal budget, progressives in Congress declared, “We’ve studied President Biden’s proposed $753 billion military budget, an increase of $13 billion from Trump’s already inflated budget, and we can’t, in good conscience, support this.”


Now that would be a show stopper, particularly if they added, “So we have decided to stand united, arm in arm, as a block of NO votes on any federal budget resolution that fails to reduce military spending by 10-30 percent. We stand united against a federal budget resolution that includes upwards of $30 billion for new nuclear weapons slated to ultimately cost nearly $2 trillion. We stand united in demanding the $50 billion earmarked to maintain all 800 overseas bases, including the new one under construction in Henoko, Okinawa, be reduced by a third because it’s time we scaled back on plans for global domination.”


“Ditto,” they say, “for the billions the President wants for the arms-escalating US Space Force, one of Trump’s worst ideas, right up there with hydroxychloroquine to cure COVID-19, and, no, we don’t want to escalate our troop deployments for a military confrontation with China in the South China Sea. It’s time to ‘right-size’ the military budget and demilitarize our foreign policy.”


Progressives uniting as a block to resist out-of-control military spending would be a no-nonsense exercise of raw power reminiscent of how the right-wing Freedom Caucus challenged the traditional Republicans in the House in 2015. Without progressives on board, President Biden may not be able to secure enough votes to pass a federal budget that would then green light the reconciliation process needed for his broad domestic agenda.


For years, progressives in Congress have complained about the bloated military budget. In 2020, 93 members in the House and 23 in the Senate voted to cut the Pentagon budget by 10% and invest those funds instead in critical human needs. A House Spending Reduction Caucus, co-chaired by Representatives Barbara Lee and Mark Pocan, emerged with 22 members on board.


Meet the members of the House Defense Spending Reduction Caucus:


Barbara Lee (CA-13); Mark Pocan (WI-2); Bonnie Watson Coleman (NJ-12); Ilhan Omar (MN-5); Raùl Grijalva (AZ-3); Mark DeSaulnier (CA-11); Jan Schakowsky(IL-9); Pramila Jayapal (WA-7); Jared Huffman (CA-2); Alan Lowenthal (CA-47); James P. McGovern (MA-2); Peter Welch (VT-at large); Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (NY-14); Frank Pallone, Jr (NJ-6).; Rashida Tlaib (MI-13); Ro Khanna (CA-17); Lori Trahan (MA-3); Steve Cohen (TN-9); Ayanna Pressley (MA-7), Anna Eshoo (CA-18).

We also have the Progressive Caucus, the largest Caucus in Congress with almost 100 members in the House and Senate. Caucus Chair Pramila Jayapal is all for cutting military spending. “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,” she said. “Don’t increase defense spending. Cut it—and invest that money into our communities.”


Now is the time for these congresspeople to turn their talk into action.


Consider the context. President Biden urgently wants to move forward on his American Families Plan rolled out in his recent State of the Union address. The plan would tax the rich to invest $1.8 trillion over the next ten years in universal preschool, two years of tuition-free community college, expanded healthcare coverage and paid family medical leave.


President Biden, in the spirit of FDR, also wants to put America back to work in a $2-trillion infrastructure program that will begin to fix our decades-old broken bridges, crumbling sewer systems and rusting water pipes. This could be his legacy, a light Green New Deal to transition workers out of the dying fossil fuel industry.

But Biden won’t get his infrastructure program and American Families Plan with higher taxes on the rich, almost 40% on income for corporations and those earning $400,000 or more a year, without Congress first passing a budget resolution that includes a top line for military and non-military spending. Both the budget resolution and reconciliation bill that would follow are filibuster proof and only require a simple majority in the House and Senate to pass.

Easy.


Maybe not.

To flex their muscles, Republicans may refuse to vote for a budget resolution crafted by the Democratic Party that would open the door to big spending on public goods, such as pre-kindergarten and expanded health care coverage. That means Biden would need every Democrat in the House and Senate on board to approve his budget resolution for military and non-military spending.


So how’s it looking?


In the Senate, Democrat Joe Manchin from West Virginia, a state that went for Trump over Biden more than two-to-one, wants to scale back Biden’s infrastructure proposal, but hasn’t sworn to vote down a budget resolution. As for Senator Bernie Sanders, the much-loved progressive, ordinarily he might balk at a record high military budget, but if the budget resolution ushers in a reconciliation bill that lowers the age of Medicare eligibility to 60 or 55, the Chair of the Senate Budget Committee may hold his fire.


That leaves anti-war activists wondering if Senator Elizabeth Warren, a critic of the Pentagon budget and “nuclear modernization,” would consider stepping up as the lone holdout in the Senate, refusing to vote for a budget that includes billions for new nuclear weapons. Perhaps with a push from outraged constituents in Massachusetts, Warren could be convinced to take this bold stand. Another potential hold out could be California Senator Dianne Feinstein, who co-chairs the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Energy and Water Development, the committee that oversees the budgeting for nuclear weapons. In 2014, Feinstein described the US nuclear arsenal program as “unnecessarily and unsustainably large.”


Over in the House, Biden needs at least 218 of the 222 Democrats to vote for the budget resolution expected to hit the floor in June or July, but what if he couldn’t get to 218? What if at least five members of the House voted no—or even just threatened to vote no-- because the top line for military spending was too high and the budget included new “money pit” nuclear land-based missiles to replace 450 Minute Man missiles.


The polls show most Democrats oppose “nuclear modernization”-- a euphemism for a plan that is anything but modern given that 50 countries have signed on to the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons making nuclear weapons illegal and the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) requires the US pursue nuclear disarmament to avoid a catastrophic accident or intentional atomic holocaust.


Now is the time for progressive congressional luminaries such as the Squad’s AOC, Ilhan Omar, Rashida Tlaib, and Ayanna Presley to unite with Congressional Progressive Caucus Chair Pramila Jayapal, as well as Barbara Lee, Mark Pocan and others in the House Spending Reduction Caucus to put their feet down and stand as a block against a bloated military budget.

Will they have the courage to unite behind such a cause? Would they be willing to play hardball and gum up the works on the way to Biden’s progressive domestic agenda?


Odds improve if constituents barrage them with phone calls, emails, and visible protests. Tell them that in the time of a pandemic, it makes no sense to approve a military budget that is 90 times the budget of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Tell them that the billions saved from “right sizing” the Pentagon could provide critical funds for addressing the climate crisis. Tell them that just as we support putting an end to our endless wars, so, too, we support putting an end to our endless cycle of exponential military spending.


Call your representative, especially If you live in a congressional district represented by one of the members of the Progressive Caucus or the House Spending Reduction Caucus. Don’t wait for marching orders from someone else. No time to wait. In the quiet of the COVID hour, our Congress toils away on appropriations bills and a budget resolution. The showdown is coming soon.

Get organized. Ask for meetings with your representatives or their foreign policy staffers. Be fierce; be relentless. Channel the grit of a Pentagon lobbyist.


This is the moment to demand a substantial cut in military spending that defunds new nuclear weapons.


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Jason Call, the progressive Democrat running for a House seat in northwest Washington that's held by a corporate Democrat who is very much a part of the Military-Industrial Complex Dwight Eisenhower warned us against 7 decades ago, has been an anti war activist his entire adult life. "I protested the first Gulf War when I was 19 yr old university student," he told me this morning. "My daughter was born in March 2003, days before we started shelling Baghdad again. She and her younger brother, and tens of millions of other Americans have only ever known a country that has prioritized war and global hegemony over healthcare, education and a living planet. When I’m elected, I’ve already committed to be that NO vote against military budgets, even if I’m the only one. But I hope that the influx of new progressives will galvanize the existing progressives into this action of solidarity with people and planet. And not just with American working people who are tired of endless war, but with people around the world who pray for peace. I’m running against one of the most ardent supporters of military spending. 20 year incumbent Rick Larsen has voted literally dozens of times against cutting military spending, even meager amounts less than 1% of the war budget. Furthermore he’s not ‘pro-Veteran’ by any stretch, as he’s also voted against increasing funding to the Dept of Veteran Affairs, and against things like allowing VA doctors to prescribe medical cannabis. And despite now writing an op Ed about how he supports Biden’s plan to withdraw troops from Afghanistan, Larsen has voted against troop withdrawal at least six times. Larsen’s history with the military industrial complex is well documented on my website at Rick’s War Machine. This info will be updated soon, because there’s so much more to tell. Also be on the lookout for a daily post we will be starting soon called ‘This Day in Rick’ where we will be highlighting each day a shitty vote that Rick has made on behalf of his corporate owners."


Former US Senate staffer Muad Hrezi is also a progressive running for a congressional seat held by a corporate Democrat, this one in Connecticut. He told me today that "Our budget is a moral document. We can't continue to allow our government to invest in bombs and bullets while half a million Americans are sleeping on the streets and millions of children go to sleep hungry every night. This is a moral crisis. There is no reason that we continue to increase our military budget. We already spend more money than the next ten countries combined, and most of those countries are our allies. We live in a time of relative peace. We need to invest more in diplomacy and domestic affairs. Our Department of War has been fattened enough."


Shervin Aazami is running for the San Fernando Valley congressional seat held by establishment Democrat Brad Sherman. This afternoon he told me that "Biden's bloated $753 billion giveaway to our destructive military-industrial complex is immoral, and a complete non-starter. It's unconscionable that the defense lobby is still peddling the same illogical 'nuclear modernization as deterrence' propaganda that fueled the cold war. But we have a defense secretary that was a former board member for Raytheon-- so what else can we expect but a defense budget that further lines the pockets of weapons manufacturers. It's just so sickening. Nuclear proliferation, expansion of overseas bases, and further military spending do not keep us safer-- especially when we have millions of Americans suffering from lack of healthcare coverage, unemployment, homelessness, and starvation wages. We have countless people in my district standing for hours in food bank lines because our legislators have failed to invest in working people. We have a climate crisis that is made significantly worse by a military-industrial complex fueled by Big Oil and resource extraction. I've shared this statistic countless times but it bears repeating-- we could end homelessness in America with 10% of the Pentagon's 2021 budget. Not doing so is policy violence. I'm not the least bit surprised that my opponent, Brad Sherman, is not a member of the House Defense Spending Reduction Caucus. He's among the most hawkish pro-war corporate democrats we have, and he's taken nearly $250,000 from defense companies over his tenure. And I am so sick and tired of performative politicians like him. Last year he was one of the 93 members of the House to vote for Pocan's amendment to reduce the Pentagon budget by 10%. But the catch is, it was an amendment he and the defense lobby knew would ultimately fail-- and so he voted for it as a symbolic gesture. But then guess what-- five months later when the final $740 billion defense spending bill was before the House, Brad voted for it alongside every other neoliberal lawmaker. That final vote was the one that mattered, and Brad showed his true colors once again-- at the end of the day, he won't abandon the weapons industry; he'll only pretend to in order to give lip service back to our constituents. It's shameful."


Rishi Kumar in the Silicon Valley progressive challenger to Pelosi ally Anna Eshoo. "America’s defense spending," Kumar told me this evening, "is greater than the next 10 countries combined. We should cut our bloated defense budget, not increase it. The new wars are going to be an economic warfare, biowarfare, bioterrorism. America needs to be prepared! Our defense strategy has to evolve, focused upon protecting America and not upon regime change wars. We need to actively pull back from bases all over the world, develop a pandemic preparedness plan and be ready for the economic warfare of the future; protect ourselves from bioterrorism and biowarfare."


Alexandra Hunt, the Philly progressive candidate up for a congressional seat next year is about to release a foreign policy platform so Philadelphia voters will be able to clearly see where she stands on the issues. A piece of it involves significant Pentagon budget cuts. "These budget cuts," she told me, "are typically regarded with fear with the assumption that they would compromise our national security. This couldn't be further from the truth. The Pentagon budget cuts I am proposing dust out old cobwebs and eliminate wasteful spending. Please see for yourself."


Pentagon Budget. Alexandra understands that the current Pentagon budget is an investment that wastes billions on war and weapons while ignoring urgent human needs at home. Alexandra will fight to reduce the overall Pentagon budget. She will advocate to eliminate the Overseas Contingency Operations “slush fund” account, close unneeded domestic bases, end use-it-lose-it contract spending, end the Foreign Military Financing Program, close 60% of foreign bases, cancel the new Intercontinental Ballistic missile production, and reduce the use of weapon systems that are ineffective, obsolete, or in excess of reasonable security needs.
These cuts in the Pentagon budget would save us an estimated $355.9 billion and reduce the budget by 48% WITHOUT any sort of jeopardy to our national security.