By David Swanson, World BEYOND War, July 25, 2023
In recent years, and again this year, to my knowledge, only a single member of either house of the U.S. Congress has said publicly, prior to voting No on a military spending bill, that he or she planned to vote No because the spending was too high. The same individual has done this more than once, and nobody else has done it at all. That individual is Senator Bernie Sanders. He says he will vote no on his website and in The Guardian. He does not say “I encourage my colleagues to join me in committing to vote No unless military spending is reduced rather than increased,” and I wish he would say that. But, of 535 or so members of Congress, 534 have not done what Sanders has, not this year, and not at any point in recent memory. It’s possible that some Libertarian has done it, advocating for tax cuts for gazillionaires rather than — as Sanders advocates — moving the funding to human and environmental needs, but I’ve publicly asked innumerable times for everyone’s help finding such an example and have yet to find one.
Many Democrats in Congress have refrained from publicly advocating for increased military spending. That’s a clear cut above those Democrats and Republicans who do so advocate. But their silence doesn’t accomplish a goddamned thing.
A group of Democrats (including Sanders) routinely cosponsors bills that never come to a vote, and votes for amendments that never pass, which — if passed and signed into law — would supposedly reduce military spending. I say “supposedly” because, while an amendment to the military spending bill could actually reduce it, a separate bill to reduce military spending — even if actually passed and signed into law — could be undone by simply continuing to increase military spending in the actual military spending bill; and, in fact, military spending has soared during the years these bills have been introduced by many times the amount that passing such a bill would reduce it. I’m not a psychologist. I’m not expressing an opinion that each cosponsor of such pointless legislation is consciously cynical about it. But I ask you: why will not a single one of them (other than Senator Sanders) do what Sanders just did?
Last year, and the year before, a smaller group of Democrats publicly stated their displeasure with Congress’s increase in military spending beyond what President Biden had proposed. While useful, in so far as rhetoric goes, this was different from saying “I will vote No.” It was also misleading. It served to obscure the fact that there were, not one, but two giant increases in military spending happening, the one proposed by Biden and the one piled on top of that by Congress. The chorus of Progressives objecting only to the latter served to memoryhole the former.
A much smaller group of Democrats — countable on one hand (Jayapal, Lee, Pocan) — has expressed displeasure with (but no intention to vote against) Biden’s proposed increases.
One Democrat, Ro Khanna, has voted No on military spending in committee, but still not publicly stated that he would vote No on the floor because the spending was too high.
Does it go without saying? Should we simply understand that Progressives plan to vote No? I don’t think so. I think it goes without being said for some critical reasons. And most Congress Members who call themselves Progressives usually vote Yes. I think it would make a world of difference if they were to actually say aloud what we are supposed to imagine them thinking.
Last year, a large group of Democrats in the House committed to voting No until Senator Manchin’s dirty oil deal was removed from the military spending bill. It was. Then they voted Yes. This year, House Democrats committed to voting No unless a bunch of anti-gay-rights and anti-abortion measures were removed. Most of them voted No, but the thing still passed the House. Organizing a group of members to take a stand does not guarantee success. Success can depend on what other members do for other reasons. But something is revealed by the success in stopping the dirty oil deal, as well as by the fact that when something Democrats actually care about is at stake (abortion rights and LGBTQ rights) they choose to organize No votes, even on the single bill they are most dedicated to passing each year.
Organizing No votes is a means of exercising actual power. It can be done in a single house of Congress. If a group of Representatives or Senators withholds its votes, and the stars align and other members are voting No for other reasons, then the other house isn’t needed and the White House isn’t needed. This is completely different from passing a bill or even an amendment. In those cases, you need the other chamber and the President on board, or it’s all for show. Peace groups that celebrate the number of cosponsors or Yes votes on these bills and amendments year after year, decade after decade, really want peace. I know they do. Peace groups that oppose the current military spending bill purely because of abortion and LGBT rights, without ever mentioning military spending or war, want peace. I know they do. But both in terms of educating the public and in terms of actually succeeding in reducing military spending, there is a better way. It is the way modeled by only Bernie Sanders.
Why only him? Why so rare? Why do Congress Members hate to commit? Well, if you watch Congress for years, you notice that quite often horrible things will just barely pass, and some of your better Congress Members will vote No only after enough Yes votes have come in. And they’ll noisily trumpet having voted No. But they will not have promised beforehand to vote No. They will not have organized others to vote No — at least not publicly. And sometimes reports will come out of the Party “leadership” having parceled out the No votes, having granted particular permissions to vote No, but not too many to risk defeat. Sometimes even Party “leaders” like Nancy Pelosi will publicly whip Yes votes, then vote No on a bill and brag to their constituents about the No vote. This is beyond cynicism. This is contempt for the public.
But why would a handful of Congress Members who speak against increased military spending and introduce legislation to reduce military spending — who are clearly staking out a position — still refuse to commit to voting No on a bill that usually passes with a great many votes to spare? Because with a bill that both parties are 1000% committed to passing, 535 people try to add in their pet projects. And sometimes those off-topic pet projects are something that one of the parties cares about as much or more than it cares about keeping the death machine armed and oiled. Either the pet project is something that offends Republicans, so that Democratic votes are all needed for passage, or it’s something that offends Democrats so that Republican votes are all needed for passage (or four Republicans can be allowed to vote No because four Democrats are insisting on voting yes, or some similar variation).
You could have the biggest war spending bill in history at the moment of greatest risk of nuclear apocalypse in history, as we do, and not a single House Democrat will say that he or she will vote No because of the spending level. But the moment off-topic items that Democrats care about are tossed in, the shouts of “I will vote No” pop up like mushrooms. Yet, even then, they do not mention the amount of spending. Even certain peace groups don’t mention it in various statements and emails.
So, without knowing whether something that matters might get tied up with the bill that dumps over half of federal discretionary spending into a mass-killing machine, a responsible Congress Member can’t commit to voting No. I’m convinced that this dictionary-sized bill could include a single sentence (such as “Volodymyr Zelensky is a sitcom nitwit”) and Democrats would publicly commit to trying to stop it. They would publicly lobby each other to vote No, and to vote No on every procedural vote, grasping any opportunity to derail the thing until they got their way — with no need for any assistance from the other house of Congress or the White House. And get their way they darn well would, because some Republicans would agree with them.
Well, what if they were to all do what Bernie Sanders has just done and publish their reasons for voting No? The reasons might be deemed virtually untouchable in Washington, D.C., but are extremely popular with the general public, which would be likely to hear about them if they were being organized around and acted upon. Let’s look at what Sanders says:
“The US Senate is now debating an $886bn defense authorization bill. Unless there are major changes to the bill, I intend to vote against it. Here’s why. As everyone knows, our country faces enormous crises. As a result of climate change our planet is experiencing unprecedented and rising temperatures. Along with the rest of the world, we need to make major investments to transform our energy system away from fossil fuels and into more efficient and sustainable energy sources, or the life we leave our kids and future generations will become increasingly unhealthy and precarious.”
I’m sold after one paragraph and suspect tens of millions of people in the United States would be too if they were to read it. But Sanders continues:
“Our healthcare system is broken. While the insurance companies and the pharmaceutical industry make hundreds of billions in profit, 85 million Americans are uninsured or underinsured, our life expectancy is declining, and we have a massive shortage of doctors, nurses, mental health practitioners and dentists.”
Now, you and I may know, as Sanders knows, that we already pay enough to join the world in universal single-payer coverage. But one way to think, very roughly, about moving to a civilized system would be to imagine moving military spending to health coverage and everybody simply ceasing to make health-insurance payments. So, it makes sense to raise healthcare as a spending priority — certainly a higher priority than killing off Ukrainians until nuclear winter. Sanders goes on:
“Our educational system is teetering. While we have one of the highest rates of childhood poverty of almost any major country, millions of parents cannot find affordable and quality childcare. The number of our young people who graduate from college is falling behind many other countries and 45 million Americans are struggling under the weight of student debt. Our housing stock is totally inadequate. While gentrification is causing rents to soar in many parts of our country some 600,000 Americans are homeless, and 18 million are spending more than half of their limited incomes on housing. These are some of the crises our country faces. And we’re not dealing with them.”
If the hopium has worn off and anger isn’t working, what about SHAME? Shouldn’t shame move us into action? Shouldn’t we be surrounding every Congressional Office Building, sweating and fainting outside their airconditioned nightmareland until they move the funding? We can’t put all the blame on the unscrupulous cogs in the system we’ve allowed to rot and fester into place, can we?
Sanders then refers to military spending as “defense spending.” He’s lived on Capitol Hill too long to even hear the words, but somehow not long enough to have dropped his opposition.
“And then there is defense spending. Well, that’s a whole other story. The proposed military budget that the Senate is now debating would increase defense spending by $28bn to over $886bn, an all-time record. The total is over $900bn if you include nuclear weapons spending through the Department of Energy. I will oppose this bloated defense budget and efforts to further increase military spending through a defense supplemental for three main reasons.”
“First, more military spending is unnecessary. The $886bn in defense spending agreed in the debt ceiling deal matches the Pentagon’s budget request and is more than sufficient to protect the United States and our allies. The United States spends more than three times what China spends on its military. This record high defense spending would come in spite of the end of the war in Afghanistan and despite the fact that the United States spends more on the military than the next 10 countries combined, most of whom are allies.
“Second, the Pentagon cannot keep track of the dollars it already has, leading to massive waste, fraud and abuse in the sprawling military-industrial complex. The Pentagon accounts for about two-thirds of all federal contracting activity, obligating more money every year than all civilian federal agencies combined. Yet the Department of Defense (DOD) remains the only major federal agency that cannot pass an independent audit. Last year, the department was unable to account for over half of its assets, which are in excess of $3.1tn. The Government Accountability Office (Gao) reports that DOD still cannot accurately track its finances or post transactions to the correct accounts. Each year, auditors find billions of dollars in the Pentagon’s proverbial couch cushions; in fiscal year 2022, navy auditors found $4.4bn in untracked inventory, while the air force identified $5.2bn worth of variances in its general ledger. A serious effort to address this waste should be undertaken before Congress throws more money at the Pentagon.
“Third, much of this additional military spending will go to line the pockets of hugely profitable defense contractors – it is corporate welfare by a different name. Almost half of the Pentagon budget goes to private contractors, some of whom are exploiting their monopoly positions and the trust granted them by the United States to line their pockets. Repeated investigations by the DOD inspector general, the GAO and CBS News have uncovered numerous instances of contractors massively overcharging DOD, helping boost these companies’ profits to nearly 40% – and sometimes as high as 4,451% – while costing US taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars. TransDigm, Lockheed Martin, Boeing and Raytheon are among the offenders, dramatically overcharging the taxpayer while reaping enormous profits, seeing their stock prices soar and handing out massive executive compensation packages. Last year, Lockheed Martin received $46bn in unclassified federal contracts, returned $11bn to shareholders through dividends and stock buybacks, and paid its CEO $25m a year. TransDigm, the company behind the 4,451% markup, touted $3.1bn in profits on $5.4bn of net sales, almost boasting to investors about just how fully it was fleecing the taxpayer. The fact that a share of the profits from these lucrative contracts will flow back to the congressional backers of higher defense budgets in the form of campaign contributions – America’s unique system of legalized bribery – makes the whole situation even more unconscionable.”
Quite a mix of pulled punches and surprisingly broken taboos there. The grotesque sum the Pentagon requested is “sufficient” to do what I wonder? But his colleagues are accepting bribes! Sanders concludes:
“Let’s be clear. Defending the American people is not only about pouring money into the Pentagon. It’s about making sure our children go to good schools and will have a habitable planet when they get older. It’s about making sure that every American has a decent standard of living and can enjoy quality healthcare and affordable housing. As a nation, the time is long overdue for fundamental changes to our national priorities. Cutting military spending is a good first step.”
I’d like to add a few friendly amendments: In the latest numbers on military spending, of 230 other countries, the U.S. spends more than 227 of them combined. Russia and China spend a combined 21% of what the U.S. and its allies spend on war. Since 1945, the U.S. military has acted in a major or minor way in 74 other nations. At least 95% of the foreign military bases on Earth are U.S. bases. Of 230 other countries, the U.S. exports more weaponry than 228 of them combined. Most places with wars manufacture no weapons. It is important, I think, to grasp these basic facts about the unique role the U.S. plays in keeping the virus of war alive on Earth.
It would cost about $30 billion per year to end starvation and hunger around the world. That sounds like a lot of money to you or me. But the Pentagon’s “sufficient” budget would look almost exactly the same if you removed that little bit.
It would cost about $11 billion per year to provide the world with clean water. Again, that sounds like a lot. Let’s round up to $50 billion per year to provide the world with both food and water. Who has that kind of money? We do.
Of course, we in the wealthier parts of the world don’t share the money, even among ourselves. Those in need of aid are right here as well as far away. Everyone in the U.S. could be given a Basic Income Guarantee for a fraction of U.S. military spending. About $70 billion per year would help eliminate poverty in the United States. Christian Sorensen writes in Understanding the War Industry, “The U.S. Census Bureau indicates that 5.7 million very poor families with children would need, on average, $11,400 more to live above the poverty line (as of 2016). The total money needed . . . would be roughly $69.4 billion/year.”
But imagine if one of the wealthy nations, the United States for example, were to put $500 billion into its own education (meaning “college debt” can begin the process of coming to sound as backward as “human sacrifice”), housing (meaning no more people without homes), infrastructure, and sustainable green energy and agricultural practices. What if, instead of leading the destruction of the natural environment (and pretending it’s all China’s fault), this country were catching up and helping to follow others in the other direction?
The potential of green energy would suddenly skyrocket with that sort of unimaginable investment, and the same investment again, year after year. But where would the money come from? $500 billion? You can’t just invent it if you’re not bailing out banks or billionaires, but we all know where it could come from. We all know that U.S. military spending has been increased by that much in recent decades with no benefits to show.
U.S. foreign aid right now is about $23 billion a year. Taking it up to $100 billion — never mind $523 billion! — would have a number of interesting impacts, including the saving of a great many lives and the prevention of a tremendous amount of suffering. It would also, if the money were moved out of the war machine, make the nation that did it the most beloved nation on earth — rather than polling repeatedly as one of the most resented.
As a small side benefit, we could trade in a President who used to ride trains and a Secretary of Transportation who plays train board games for actual twenty-first century trains. Just an idea.