As they take the stage for the first Democratic debates of the 2020 presidential campaign, the 20 participating candidates should be ready for one frequently asked question: How will you pay for it? Democrats often pledge to finance their most ambitious plans – Medicare-for-all, debt-free college, a Green New Deal – with tax increases on the wealthy and corporations. That is both sensible and fair. But candidates hoping to distinguish themselves in the limited time they will be allotted should also consider taking a stand against the United States’ bloated defense budget.
This month, the House Armed Services Committee advanced a $733 billion defense budget on a mostly party-line vote. According to Defense News, the lack of Republican support for the bill illustrated “the stark divide in defense policy between the two parties.” Yet that divide is far narrower than you might think. The bill’s price tag is just $17 billion less than the $750 billion that President Donald Trump requested; it still was, as Rep. Adam Smith, D-Washington, boasted, the “largest” defense budget in history. There remains a near-universal commitment in both parties to massive defense spending – a case of Washington, D.C., bipartisanship that the country would be better off without.
A timely new report from the Center for International Policy’s Sustainable Defense Task Force offers an alternative path forward. In the report, “A Sustainable Defense: More Security, Less Spending,” the nonpartisan group of military and budget experts outlines a strategy that it says would save $1.2 trillion over the next 10 years without harming national security interests. In fact, through a sober reassessment of the biggest threats to the United States in the 21st century, including climate change and cyberattacks, the proposal would keep the country safer than an outdated approach that relies on perpetual spending increases.
The task force’s report calls for an end to “unnecessary and counterproductive wars” that have cost the United States trillions of dollars and thousands of lives. This would allow for a 10 percent reduction in active-duty military personnel, which would save $600 billion over a decade. ” Although smaller than today’s military,” the report notes, “this armed force would remain the most powerful on earth, well equipped for current and emerging security challenges.” The remaining $600 billion in savings would be achieved through steps including restrictions on the Pentagon’s war-spending account, decreased reliance on private defense contractors and a heightened emphasis on nuclear deterrence and diplomacy.
Defense hawks argue that reining in the Pentagon’s budget would hamper the military’s readiness, which some contend has been already damaged as a result of spending caps imposed by the Budget Control Act of 2011 (BCA). But as the Center for International Policy’s William D. Hartung and Ben Freeman write, “The oft-repeated assertion that the U.S. military has been underfunded during this decade is simply not true. . . . [The] Department of Defense has actually received over $1 trillion more in the decade the BCA has been in effect than in the previous 10 years, when the number of U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan peaked at 180,000 – nearly nine times current levels.”
For Democrats, the Pentagon’s budget is also an opportunity to highlight one of Trump’s many broken promises to the American people. Trump railed against the costs of endless war as a candidate, claiming that the United States “would have been a lot better off” spending that money on infrastructure and other national priorities. Since taking office, however, the president has repeatedly asked for even more Pentagon funding while escalating (or, in the case of Iran, threatening to escalate) our military entanglements.
A growing number of progressive leaders and activists now recognize that the United States’ addiction to defense spending is neither sustainable nor wise. The newly released Poor People’s Moral Budget from the Institute for Policy Studies and the Poor People’s Campaign calls for “$350 billion in annual military spending cuts that would make the nation and the world more secure.” An initiative called “Put People Over the Pentagon” – supported by more than two dozen progressive groups – has gotten sympathetic hearings when briefing Democratic presidential campaigns. The question is who will force the issue into the debate.
Among the leading 2020 candidates, Sens. Bernie Sanders, I-Vermont, and Elizabeth Warren, D-Massachusetts, have been critical of excessive Pentagon spending. They, along with Sen. Kamala Harris, D-California, voted against last year’s $716 billion defense budget. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, D-Hawaii, has also made defense spending cuts a central message of her campaign. But the issue has not broken through the campaign cacophony as much as it should.
Budgets are ultimately more than numbers on a page. They are moral documents that reflect who we are and what kind of country we aspire to be. Those are precisely the questions being debated in the 2020 election, which is why, when it comes to the Pentagon’s budget, it’s time for Democratic candidates to take a stand.