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Hospital staff look on as the United States Navy Blue Angels pass over Medical City Dallas on May 06, 2020 in Dallas, Texas. (Photo: Tom Pennington/Getty Images)

Hospital staff look on as the United States Navy Blue Angels pass over Medical City Dallas on May 06, 2020 in Dallas, Texas. (Photo: Tom Pennington/Getty Images)

Congress Is Deadlocked on Covid Relief But Came Together to Fund the Pentagon for $740 Billion

There is always money for war.

Sarah Lazare

 by In These Times

The annu­al approval of the gar­gan­tu­an U.S. mil­i­tary bud­get is one of the most reli­able rit­u­als in Con­gress. It is so ordi­nary and over­whelm­ing­ly bipar­ti­san, it’s bare­ly con­sid­ered news­wor­thy, and few out­lets fol­low the details of exact­ly how much the gov­ern­ment is allo­cat­ing to a nuclear weapons buildup, or deploy­ments to the Asia Pacif­ic, or the steady creep of U.S. mil­i­tary bases across the con­ti­nent of Africa. Even under Pres­i­dent Trump, when the Demo­c­ra­t­ic lead­er­ship claims to have struck a more con­fronta­tion­al pos­ture, those same lead­ers have repeat­ed­ly hand­ed him bloat­ed mil­i­tary bud­gets, as we saw Wednes­day with Con­gress’ bicam­er­al approval of a rough­ly $740 bil­lion mil­i­tary bud­get for 2021.

It is real­ly only Trump’s threats to veto the Nation­al Defense Autho­riza­tion Act (NDAA), most recent­ly over his objec­tions to some lia­bil­i­ty pro­tec­tions for social media com­pa­nies, that cut through the noise. When that does hap­pen, the head­lines often look like this one from ABC News: ​“Trump’s veto threat on must-pass defense bill meets GOP resis­tance.” (Oth­er­wise ​“objec­tive” ABC News has no prob­lem ran­dom­ly edi­to­ri­al­iz­ing about the essen­tial­ness of the Pen­ta­gon bud­get. A search of ABC News’ archives reveals no such ​“must-pass” mod­i­fi­er for child health­care, hous­ing relief or Covid-relat­ed relief.)

But this is no ordi­nary year. As Con­gress races to pass the NDAA for 2021, it does so in a coun­try that is hurtling toward months that could be among ​“the most dif­fi­cult in the pub­lic health his­to­ry of this nation,” accord­ing to Dr. Robert Red­field, the direc­tor of the Cen­ters for Dis­ease Con­trol and Pre­ven­tion. Along with this health cri­sis, whose scale in the Unit­ed States was entire­ly pre­ventable, comes eco­nom­ic dev­as­ta­tion: Lines for food banks are stretch­ing for miles and, accord­ing to one study, one in six peo­ple is food inse­cure. As of Sep­tem­ber, one in six adults said they live in a house that’s behind on rent.

The near­ly $3 tril­lion in stim­u­lus spend­ing so far has come from bills passed in March and April, includ­ing the CARES Act, which togeth­er com­bined cor­po­rate bailouts and tax breaks for the wealthy with mea­sures that, while insuf­fi­cient, pro­vid­ed at least some gen­uine relief, includ­ing expand­ed unem­ploy­ment insur­ance and $1,200 checks. But with­out a new relief pack­age, rough­ly 12 mil­lion peo­ple are poised to lose their unem­ploy­ment ben­e­fits at the end of this year, and fed­er­al pro­tec­tions against evic­tions (which have been gross­ly insuf­fi­cient and sig­nif­i­cant­ly walked back) and defer­ment of stu­dent loan pay­ments are also set to expire. While there are some reports of renewed dis­cus­sion of Covid relief, there has been lit­tle mean­ing­ful move­ment, and there’s a good chance that stalled nego­ti­a­tions will bring unfath­omable lev­els of eco­nom­ic dev­as­ta­tion to tens of mil­lions of people.

It is worth tak­ing a moment to con­trast this stale­mate over coro­n­avirus relief with bipar­ti­san sup­port for the U.S. war machine.

The war budget is bad because the U.S. militarism, aggression and meddling that it finances are deeply harmful—among the most harmful forces on Earth.

The Unit­ed States has by far the biggest mil­i­tary bud­get on the plan­et, spend­ing more than the next 10 coun­tries com­bined. There is no indi­ca­tion that U.S. law­mak­ers plan to reverse this trend any­time soon: For six con­sec­u­tive years the mil­i­tary bud­get has either increased or stayed rough­ly the same, tak­ing infla­tion into account. As the Nation­al Pri­or­i­ties Project point­ed out in June, the mil­i­tary bud­get in 2019 account­ed for 53% of the fed­er­al dis­cre­tionary bud­get. How­ev­er, if you con­sid­er the ​“mil­i­ta­rized bud­get,” includ­ing ​“vet­er­ans’ affairs, home­land secu­ri­ty, and law enforce­ment and incar­cer­a­tion,” this num­ber jumps to 64.5% of the fed­er­al dis­cre­tionary bud­get. But actu­al U.S. spend­ing on wars is far greater. Writ­ers Mandy Smith­berg­er and William Har­tung dis­cussed last year, ​“There are at least 10 sep­a­rate pots of mon­ey ded­i­cat­ed to fight­ing wars, prepar­ing for yet more wars, and deal­ing with the con­se­quences of wars already fought.” As a result, the cost of war eas­i­ly exceeds $1 tril­lion per year, Smith­berg­er and Har­tung conclude.

Being expen­sive in itself is not grounds for objec­tion: Some real­ly good things that we des­per­ate­ly need are expen­sive, like pay­ing peo­ple to stay home so that they can sur­vive the pan­dem­ic. The war bud­get is bad because the U.S. mil­i­tarism, aggres­sion and med­dling that it finances are deeply harm­ful — among the most harm­ful forces on Earth. The Unit­ed States has rough­ly 800 mil­i­tary bases around the world, under­min­ing local self-deter­mi­na­tion, emit­ting envi­ron­men­tal poi­son and car­bon emis­sions, and bring­ing increased risk of sex­u­al assault. The so-called ​“War on Ter­ror” has turned the whole plan­et into a U.S. bat­tle­field, and now the Unit­ed States is plan­ning to inten­si­fy its mil­i­ta­riza­tion of the Asia-Pacif­ic region in order to esca­late against Chi­na, which the cur­rent NDAA reflects, with bipar­ti­san sup­port. As the world suf­fered from the coro­n­avirus pan­dem­ic, the Unit­ed States con­tin­ued its sup­port for bomb­ings in Yemen, ratch­eted up bru­tal sanc­tions regimes, and now the Trump admin­is­tra­tion is, once again, engag­ing in dan­ger­ous brinkman­ship with Iran, no doubt mak­ing the pan­dem­ic far worse for those caught in U.S. crosshairs.

As the pan­dem­ic was rag­ing, Con­gress had no prob­lem pass­ing leg­is­la­tion to con­tin­ue U.S. mil­i­tary vio­lence. The Sen­ate ver­sion of the NDAA passed on July 23 in a vote of 86 – 14, while the House ver­sion was approved July 21 by 295 – 125. This defense bill was then approved Decem­ber 2 by both cham­bers of Congress. 

To be fair, some have tried to use the pan­dem­ic to call for decreas­ing the mil­i­tary bud­get. In July, a pro­pos­al in both the House and the Sen­ate to cut the mil­i­tary bud­get by 10% (or $74 bil­lion), and divert those funds to social pro­grams, failed. This pro­posed cut is a small frac­tion of what’s need­ed to make a dent in the harm­ful U.S. mil­i­tary appa­ra­tus. Yet, accord­ing to the Nation­al Pri­or­i­ties Project, even the $74 bil­lion this pro­pos­al would have divert­ed could have fund­ed 44 times as many coro­n­avirus tests at the time, or pro­vid­ed hous­ing for the over half a mil­lion home­less peo­ple in the country.

While entire­ly rou­tine at this point, it’s use­ful to high­light on the eve of yet anoth­er mas­sive Pen­ta­gon hand­out how the bud­get for war could instead go toward life-pre­serv­ing social goods. This is use­ful, not to buy into aus­ter­i­ty notions of scarci­ty, but sim­ply to show the pro­found immoral­i­ty of where our pub­lic resources go. When it comes to mil­i­tary spend­ing, the sky is the lim­it. Space Force? Sure. Rough­ly $21.9 bil­lion for nuclear weapons pro­grams? No prob­lem. But when it comes to keep­ing peo­ple alive, U.S. polit­i­cal imag­i­na­tion is sig­nif­i­cant­ly more con­strained. Right off the bat in March, Demo­c­ra­t­ic leader Rep. Nan­cy Pelosi (Calif.) shot down uni­ver­sal, robust cash pay­ments to keep peo­ple afloat, even as high-pro­file fig­ures like Sen. Bernie Sanders (I‑Vt.) and Rep. Rashi­da Tlaib (D‑Mich.) called for such measures.

This is not to say that Repub­li­cans and Democ­rats are equal­ly to blame for the present impasse. As Hadas Thi­er wrote for In These Times in Octo­ber, ​“The lion’s share of respon­si­bil­i­ty for failed nego­ti­a­tions sure­ly lays at the Repub­li­cans’ door, but the real­i­ty is that des­per­ate­ly need­ed eco­nom­ic relief is being treat­ed as a polit­i­cal foot­ball on all sides.” Rather, we should not allow bipar­ti­san agree­ment on mil­i­tary spend­ing to sim­ply fade into the back­ground, as an unre­mark­able and immutable fact of U.S. pol­i­tics. That we can find the mon­ey for war but not for coro­n­avirus relief expos­es the moral rot at the cen­ter of U.S. pol­i­tics, a rot that must be dug out and expunged if we are to get through this crisis.


© 2021 In These Times
Sarah Lazare

Sarah Lazare

Sarah Lazare is web editor at In These Times. She comes from a background in independent journalism for publications including The Intercept, Common Dreams, The Nation, and Tom Dispatch. She tweets at @sarahlazare.

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