Miami Downtown, FL, USA – MAY 31, 2020: Police and military in Miami during a protest against violence and racism (Photo credit: Tverdokhlib / Shutterstock.com)
Congress’s big opportunity to de-militarize our security budget

What keeps us safe? Looking at the rapidly rising coronavirus rate and the widespread protests against systemic racism and police brutality, it definitely hasn’t been missiles, bombers, aircraft carriers, and nuclear weapons. 

And yet, Congress is currently debating a tone deaf $740 billion defense spending authorization bill for the coming fiscal year. Even though the United States is experiencing a grave assault on our national security, we are utterly unprepared to meet the challenge. 

The public health crises we’re facing are a wake-up call for the long overdue imperative of shifting spending away from the Pentagon and investing instead in priority human security needs. With Congress poised to pass its defense spending authorization bill for the coming fiscal year, now is the time to begin that process.

Two important lessons are emerging from the Movement for Black Lives’ call to “defund the police” — a demand that hits raw nerves but on reflection turns out to be common sense.

First, spending lots of money on public safety measures that rely on violence and the use of force drains money from other approaches that address underlying problems, reduce conflict, and offer a much greater return on investment.

The more than $100 billion the United States spends on policing is money not spent on housing, education, crisis intervention, addiction treatment, and economic opportunity. Similarly, the three-quarters of a trillion dollars in Pentagon spending sucks money away from investments in pandemic preparedness, public health, averting climate catastrophe, eliminating domestic and global hunger, and much more.

The coronavirus crisis has laid bare the very real cost of our underinvestment in public health and other needs. The budget for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is around $8 billion — barely 1 percent of the total Pentagon budget. The CDC budget targeting new infectious diseases is $570 million — less than one-tenth of 1 percent of total Pentagon spending.

The budgets for the CDC, public health, environmental protection, education, and other human security investments are cramped because the Pentagon is gobbling up so much money. Military spending makes up 53 percent of the discretionary federal budget. That’s more money than we spend on, for example, education, federal courts, affordable housing, local economic development, and the State Department combined.

Second, an overreliance on the use of force actually undermines public safety; it’s difficult to avoid using tools of violence. Over-policing in Black and brown communities leads to degrading stop-and-frisks, countless arrests for petty offenses, avoidable violence and too often death, overincarceration, and the effective criminalization of Black and brown people. Overinvestment in the military has similarly paved the way for a seemingly endless “War on Terror” across the Middle East and North Africa that both cost millions of lives around the world and left the United States less safe.

The Pentagon budget is simply too big. The U.S. spends more on the military than the next nine countries combined. There are hundreds of billions in easily obtainable savings in the Pentagon budget, including tens of billions wasted on expensive private contractors, a giant Pentagon slush fund, and a vast array of unneeded,expensive weapons. Cutting those budget items would cut into the profits of the military contractors, but it wouldn’t injure the security of the nation one bit. In fact, it would strengthen national security.

As a modest step, Congress should adopt a proposal from Reps. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) and Mark Pocan (D-Wis.), along with Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), to redirect 10 percent of the Pentagon budget to community needs. Lawmakers will get that chance in the next few days, as the National Defense Authorization Act heads to the floor of both the House and the Senate for a vote and tees up a showdown on this proposal. It’s an unprecedented opportunity for Congress to take a concrete step toward fundamentally transforming the way we allocate our money as a nation by prioritizing programs that improve people’s lives instead of further bolstering systems of violence.

These are lessons that should have long been apparent, but now the Black Lives Matter protests and the utterly ineffectual U.S. response to the coronavirus have thrown them into sharp relief. A nation with the most advanced military weaponry in the world, with overwhelming military superiority on the oceans and in the skies, which can listen in on conversations anywhere on the planet, has shown itself utterly unprepared to handle a microscopic threat. It’s time to establish sensible priorities and shift money away from the Pentagon and to the nation’s many urgent needs.