Progressives plan to push big cuts to defense spending, citing coronavirus crisis

The Intercept, 6/20/2020
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SEN. BERNIE SANDERS will propose a sweeping 10 percent cut to Pentagon spending, with the savings redirected as grant money to “high-poverty” areas in the United States, according to the text of a forthcoming amendment his office shared with The Intercept.

Members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus are planning to use Sanders’s amendment as part of an effort to push for drastic cuts to military spending in this year’s budget in response to the coronavirus pandemic and its devastating economic impact. The group of legislators also wants to build support for the idea of reducing the Pentagon’s mammoth expenditures in anticipation of a future Democratic administration and budget rules set to change next year.

Rep. Mark Pocan, D-Wis., one of the co-chairs of the caucus, told The Intercept that the caucus planned to focus on a handful of amendments that address spending in the $740 billion National Defense Authorization Act. The caucus discussed its plans on a conference call Tuesday.

“I see this as an organizing campaign around the size of the defense budget,” Pocan said. “Next year may be the best chance, with a Democratic president and maybe a Democratic Senate, so we really are going to do everything we can this time.”

Progressives in Congress have long called for reductions to U.S. military spending, which has increased by more than $100 billion annually under Donald Trump, arguing that money would be better spent funding domestic priorities. But within Congress, progressives have limited influence on the size and shape of the Pentagon’s budget, and efforts like Sanders’s are a test of their political clout.

According to the draft text of Sanders’s amendment, it would apply a blunt 14 percent cut to all of the accounts authorized by the bill except for Defense Department and military payroll, and the Defense Health Program. The cuts would add up to about 10 percent of the bill’s top line, bringing the total authorized spending down by $74 billion.

The savings would then be used to establish a Treasury Department grant program, which would allow local and county governments to apply for money to be spent in “high-poverty” areas. The text lists building public housing, community health centers, and schools; decontaminating drinking water; and payroll for teachers, among other listed “permissible uses,” and prohibits the money from being spent on prisons.

“What this amendment is about is saying it is time to fundamentally change our national priorities,” Sanders said in a statement. “In the midst of the worst public health crisis in over 100 years and the most severe economic downturn since the Great Depression, we do not need to authorize $740.5 billion in bombs, weapons, fighter jets and endless wars.”

“In the midst of the worst public health crisis in over 100 years and the most severe economic downturn since the Great Depression, we do not need to authorize $740.5 billion in bombs, weapons, fighter jets and endless wars.”

Sanders’s critics will likely object to proportional, across-the-board authorization cuts as a method of reducing spending.

Gordon Adams, a professor at American University’s International School of Service and former top budget official in the Clinton administration, told The Intercept that he thought Sanders’s amendment was unlikely to pass, but it could send a message.

“What I think [Sanders] is doing here is seizing a moment to make a point,” said Adams, who also advised Sanders during his 2016 presidential campaign. “He’s not legislating defense. He’s making a point that in an era of racial tension and pandemic, the big fiscal tradeoffs for the government are on the table. That’s what he’s really saying.”

A window may open up in 2021. With the budget request deadline in February, incoming presidents can begin reshaping the budget in the first weeks of their administration. Additionally, decade-old budget rules are set to expire that tie the amount of national security spending to Congress’s non-defense spending, giving a potential President Joe Biden even wider latitude to make significant cuts to the Defense Department without touching other areas.

In separate interviews, Pocan and Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Calif., told The Intercept that they would introduce a counterpart amendment to Sanders’s in the House, but did not provide details. “I’m not sure I can tell you exactly the crafting other than it will target 10 percent of the defense budget,” Pocan said.

Both also said they were looking at additional targeted cuts, including to emergency wartime accounts — called “overseas contingency operations” — and to Trump’s Space Force. In the past year, Congress, at the request of the Trump administration, dramatically expanded overseas contingency funding as a way to get around defense budget caps.

Lee also introduced a nonbinding resolution last week that would declare it the “sense of the House of Representatives” that Congress should cut “up to $350 billion” from the defense budget. The resolution mirrors a similar call by the Poor People’s Campaign and other activist groups, but it would not have any required impact on the budgets that Congress passes each year.

Lee told The Intercept that the resolution was part of a consensus-building effort aimed at future years.

“There are two efforts taking place at the same time,” she said by phone. “One is our 10 percent cut across the board this year. The $350 billion [resolution] we introduced to make sure we begin to set the stage and set the framework. We did that so we could start educating our colleagues and the public about the real savings that could occur in the defense budget.”

THROUGHOUT TRUMP’S PRESIDENCY, Pentagon officials have called for increases in military spending as a way of confronting Russia and China. The administration’s 2018 National Defense Strategy says that “long-term strategic competitions with China and Russia” requires “increased and sustained investment” and that view has gained mainstream acceptance even among voices in the Democratic Party. In 2018, a group of bipartisan national security experts commissioned by Congress to review the strategy recommended that “Congress increase the base defense budget at an average rate of three to five percent” each year in coming years.

This year’s bill looks to take competition with China one step further. Although the Senate version of year’s authorization bill already authorizes more than $21 billion for shipbuilding ($1.4 billion above the budget’s request), Sen. Jack Reed of Rhode Island, the top Democrat on the Senate Armed Services Committee, has joined with his Republican counterpart to advocate for a “Pacific Deterrence Initiative.” In a joint op-ed with Sen. Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma, Reed says that the multibillion-dollar venture will “ensure U.S. forces have everything they need to compete, fight, and win in the Indo-Pacific.”

“We can’t just say ‘cut’; we have to say what is the alternative.”

And as the military budget has increased, progressive Democrats have been able to marshal little opposition beyond a handful of protest votes to past defense bills. Last year, progressives boosted amendments that restricted the Trump administration’s war powers to attack Iran or participate in the Saudi-led war in Yemen, both of which passed the House but got stripped out when the House version of the bill was reconciled with the Senate. House Democrats also passed a measure that would have repealed the 2002 use of force resolution for the Iraq War, and that effort, too, did not make it into the final bill. The following January, the Trump administration cited the 2002 resolution as the legal basis for the killing of Iranian Maj. Gen. Qassim Suleimani.

Rep. Ro Khanna, D-Calif., a progressive member on the House Armed Services Committee, told The Intercept that he was looking at cuts to overseas contingency operations, as well as cutting funding for a new generation of nuclear ground-launched ballistic missiles.

“The Democrats have to be smart about messaging. We have to talk about not just what the reduction is going to be, but how we’re going to create millions of new jobs with that money,” Khanna said. “We can’t just say ‘cut’; we have to say what is the alternative.”

But Khanna was skeptical that progressives could make comprehensive cuts to defense without a larger presence in congressional leadership: “We need the presidency. We need people in our leadership who are progressive.”