Bernie Sanders talks during an interview in the Russell Rotunda in Washington on December 16, 2020. (Photo by Caroline Brehman / CQ Roll Call)
When Data for Progress surveyed Americans on Pentagon spending earlier this year, the polling group asked a simple question: “Over the past four years during a time of relative peace, America has increased its defense spending by 20 percent. Would you support or oppose cutting 10 percent of the $738 federal defense budget—with the guarantee that none of the cuts would affect American military personnel’s pay or health care—to pay for other needs like fighting the coronavirus, education, health care and housing?”
Fifty-six percent of those surveyed said they favored a reordering of priorities to cut Pentagon spending and fund human needs at a time when hunger and homelessness are at crisis levels, while just 27 percent opposed the idea. Among Democrats, 69 percent favored the proposal, while just 19 percent opposed it. Strikingly, 50 percent of Republicans supported cutting funds for the military-industrial complex that former President Dwight Eisenhower warned 60 years ago had already created “the potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power.”
Yet, on Monday, the vast majority of House Democrats put their stamp of approval on the latest version of the National Defense Authorization Act, a pork-laden $741 billion spending package that pours even more money into that military-industrial complex.
Passed with relative ease by the House and Senate before Christmas, the NDAA was vetoed by President Trump, in a tantrum that had more to do with the president’s need for attention—and his anger over the failure of Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell and congressional GOP leaders to fully embrace his efforts to overturn the 2020 election results—than the actual contents of the bill.
Trump rarely does anything for the right reason, but that’s beside the point. The president’s veto, and the pressure to override it, created an opening for a renewed debate over spending priorities at a point when Congress has yet to resolve questions about how to provide relief for Americans and to rescue struggling state and local governments.
Instead, House Democratic leaders rallied a bipartisan coalition to override the president’s veto with a 322-87 vote. The vast majority of Democrats joined most Republicans in voting to give the Pentagon even more money than the Department of Defense had requested.
The 87 “no” votes came primarily from Republicans who were simply doing Trump’s bidding. But a score of House Democrats also objected to the override vote, as California Representative Ro Khanna pointed out.
The Democrats who objected were also laying down a marker for the debates to come over federal spending, as so-called “deficit hawks” in both parties demand austerity at home—even as the hawks approve tax cuts for the rich and, as always, blank checks for defense contractors.
In addition to Khanna, the Democrats who cast “no” votes were: California’s Mark DeSaulnier, Jimmy Gomez, Jared Huffman, and Barbara Lee; Hawaii’s Tulsi Gabbard; Illinois’s Chuy Garcia; Oregon’s Earl Blumenauer and Suzanne Bonamici; Massachusetts’s Joe Kennedy, Jim McGovern, and Ayanna Pressley; Michigan’s Rashida Tlaib; Minnesota’s Ilhan Omar; New York’s Yvette Clarke, Adriano Espaillat, Grace Meng, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez; Washington’s Pramila Jayapal; and Wisconsin’s Mark Pocan.
The 20 Democrats who cast the courageous, and correct, vote on Monday included all the members of “the Squad,” as well as longtime Congressional Progressive Caucus leaders such as current chair Pramila Jayapal and former cochair Mark Pocan. They were joined by the steadiest critic of bloated Department of Defense budgets, Barbara Lee, who has proposed a $350 billion cut in funding for the Pentagon.
Lee and Pocan recently formed a Defense Spending Reduction Caucus in the House, with Pocan saying, “For too long, Congress has put the profits of defense contractors above the needs of the American people.”
“From unnecessary new nuclear weapons to the Space Force to the ballooning use of outside contractors—our Pentagon spending is growing more rapidly than needed with abundant waste and endless wars,” the Wisconsinite argues. “With this new caucus, we hope to lead Congress in decreasing and redirecting the defense budget.”
To do that, however, Democrats—and the handful of libertarian-leaning Republicans who see the need for cuts—are going to have to get better at playing hardball when it comes to budget priorities. That’s what Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders did this week, when he announced that he plans to filibuster the Senate NDAA override vote in an effort to force McConnell allow a vote on providing Americans with $2,000 relief checks. (To their credit, House Democrats gave almost unanimous support on Monday to direct-payment legislation.)
“McConnell and the Senate want to expedite the override vote and I understand that,” Sanders said on Monday. “But I’m not going to allow that to happen unless there is a vote, no matter how long that takes, on the $2,000 direct payment.”
That’s a bold move by Sanders, who says, “If McConnell doesn’t agree to an up or down vote to provide the working people of our country a $2,000 direct payment, Congress will not be going home for New Year’s Eve. Let’s do our job.”
Upending the process by which ever increasing cash flows are directed into the military-industrial complex may not be popular with McConnell and the defense contractors he represents. But it most definitely is popular in a country where the overwhelming majority of Democratic voters and more than half of Republicans voters are ready to take money out of the Pentagon budget and move it into the fight against the coronavirus pandemic and the economic pain that extends from it.
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