A job for the "Squad" and progressive allies: Unite to downsize Biden's military budget

Do progressives in Congress have the courage to demand cuts in military spending — and defund nuclear weapons?

By Medea Benjamin - Marcy Winograd
Published May 4, 2021 9:40AM (UTC)
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Barbara Lee, Mark Pocan and Pramila Jayapal (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

Imagine this scenario: A month before the vote on the federal budget, progressives in Congress declare, "We've studied President Biden's proposed $753 billion military budget, an increase of $13 billion from Trump's already inflated budget, and we can't, in good conscience, support this."

Now that would be a show-stopper, particularly if they added, "So we have decided to stand united, arm in arm, as a block of 'no' votes on any federal budget resolution that fails to reduce military spending by 10 to 30 percent. We stand united against a federal budget resolution that includes upwards of $30 billion for new nuclear weapons — slated to ultimately cost nearly $2 trillion. We stand united in demanding the $50 billion earmarked to maintain all 800 overseas bases, including the new one under construction on Okinawa, be reduced by at least one-third, because it's time we scaled back on plans for global domination."

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"Ditto," they say, "for the billions the president wants for the arms-escalating Space Force, one of Trump's worst ideas, right up there with hydroxychloroquine to cure COVID-19. And, no, we don't want to escalate our troop deployments for a military confrontation with China in the South China Sea. It's time to 'right-size' the military budget and demilitarize our foreign policy."  

Progressives uniting as a block to resist out-of-control military spending would be a no-nonsense exercise of raw power, reminiscent of the way the right-wing Freedom Caucus challenged the traditional Republicans in the House in 2015. Without progressives on board, President Biden might not be able to secure enough votes to pass a federal budget that would then greenlight the reconciliation process needed for his broad domestic agenda. 

For years, progressives in Congress have complained about the bloated military budget. In 2020, 93 members in the House and 23 in the Senate voted to cut the Pentagon budget by 10% and invest those funds instead in critical human needs. A House Spending Reduction Caucus, co-chaired by Reps. Barbara Lee of California and Mark Pocan of Wisconsin, emerged with 22 members on board, including all four members of the "Squad" but also quite a few more moderate or mainstream Democrats. 

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We also have the Congressional Progressive Caucus, the largest in Congress, now with almost 100 members in the House and Senate. Caucus chair Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., is all for cutting military spending. "We're in the midst of a crisis that has left millions of families unable to afford food, rent and bills," she told the Nation. "But at the same time, we're dumping billions of dollars into a bloated Pentagon budget. Don't increase defense spending. Cut it — and invest that money into our communities."

Now is the time for these congresspeople to turn their talk into action.

Consider the context. Biden urgently wants to move forward on his American Families Plan rolled out in his recent address to Congress. The plan would tax the rich to invest $1.8 trillion over the next 10 years in universal preschool, two years of tuition-free community college, expanded health care coverage and paid family medical leave. 

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In the spirit of FDR, Biden also wants to put America back to work with a $2 trillion infrastructure program that will begin to fix our decades-old broken bridges, crumbling sewer systems and rusting water pipes. This could be his legacy, a Green New Deal-lite to transition workers out of the dying fossil fuel industry. 

But Biden won't get his infrastructure program and American Families Plan with higher taxes on the rich, almost 40% on income for corporations and those earning $400,000 or more a year, unless Congress first passes a budget resolution that includes a top line for military and non-military spending. Both the budget resolution and the reconciliation bill that would follow are filibuster-proof and only require a simple majority in the House and Senate to pass.

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Easy.

Maybe not.

To flex their muscles, Republicans may refuse to vote for a budget resolution crafted by the Democratic Party that would open the door to big spending on public goods, such as pre-kindergarten and expanded health care coverage. That means Biden would need every Democrat in the House and Senate on board to approve his budget resolution for military and non-military spending. 

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So how's it looking?

In the Senate, Democrat Joe Manchin of West Virginia, a state that went for Trump over Biden more than two to one, wants to scale back Biden's infrastructure proposal, but hasn't sworn to vote down a budget resolution. As for Sen. Bernie Sanders, the much-loved progressive, ordinarily he might balk at a record high military budget. But if the budget resolution ushers in a reconciliation bill that lowers the age of Medicare eligibility to 60 or 55, the chair of the Senate Budget Committee might feel compelled to hold his fire.

That leaves antiwar activists wondering if Sen. Elizabeth Warren, a critic of the Pentagon budget and "nuclear modernization," would consider stepping up as the lone holdout in the Senate, refusing to vote for a budget that includes billions for new nuclear weapons. Perhaps with a push from outraged constituents in Massachusetts, Warren could be convinced to take this bold stand. Another potential holdout could be California Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who co-chairs the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Energy and Water Development, the committee that oversees budgeting for nuclear weapons. In 2014, Feinstein described the U.S. nuclear arsenal program as "unnecessarily and unsustainably large."

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Over in the House, Biden needs at least 218 of the 222 Democrats to vote for the budget resolution expected to hit the floor in June or July. But what if he can't get to 218? What if at least five members of the House voted no — or even just threatened to — because the top line for military spending was too high and the budget included new "money pit" land-based nuclear missiles to replace 450 Minuteman III ICBMs, deployed since the 1970s. 

Polls show that most Democrats oppose "nuclear modernization" — a euphemism for a plan that is anything but modern, given that 50 countries have signed onto the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, which would make nuclear weapons illegal, and the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) requires the U.S. to pursue nuclear disarmament to avoid a catastrophic accident or intentional nuclear holocaust.

Now is the time for progressive congressional luminaries such as the Squad's Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Rashida Tlaib and Ayanna Presley to unite with Congressional Progressive Caucus chair Jayapal, as well as Lee, Pocan and others in the House Spending Reduction Caucus to stand as a block against a bloated military budget.

Will they have the courage to unite behind such a cause? Would they be willing to play hardball and gum up the works on the way to Biden's progressive domestic agenda? Odds will improve if constituents barrage them with phone calls, emails and visible protests. In a time of pandemic, it makes no sense to approve a military budget that is 90 times the budget of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The billions saved from "right-sizing" the Pentagon could provide critical funds for addressing the climate crisis. Just as we support putting an end to our endless wars, we also support putting an end to our endless cycle of exponential military spending. This is the moment to demand a substantial cut in the Pentagon budget — and to defund new nuclear weapons.


Medea Benjamin

Medea Benjamin, co-founder of CODEPINK for Peace, is the author of "Inside Iran: The Real History and Politics of the Islamic Republic of Iran" and "Kingdom of the Unjust: Behind the U.S.-Saudi Connection."

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Marcy Winograd

Marcy Winograd of Progressive Democrats of America served as a 2020 Democratic delegate for Bernie Sanders and co-founded the Progressive Caucus of the California Democratic Party. As coordinator of CODEPINKCONGRESS, she spearheads Capitol Hill calling parties to mobilize co-sponsors and votes for peace and foreign policy legislation.

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