July 1, 2020 - Washington, DC, United States: U.S. Senator Tom Cotton (R-AR) speaking at a press conference against the District of Columbia becoming a state. (Photo by Michael Brochstein/Sipa USA)
Congress is actually debating new nukes testing amid a devastating pandemic

While the country plunges further into economic and public health crises, Congress continues to its trend of focusing on misplaced priorities.

After both chambers of Congress rejected amendments to the National Defense Authorization Act to redirect 10 percent of the Pentagon budget towards community needs like housing, education, and healthcare, the House and Senate passed their versions of the NDAA with bipartisan majorities authorizing a whopping $740 billion for the Pentagon.

The move to reject the 10 percent cut sends a clear message to constituents that despite the extraordinary circumstances of COVID-19 — including a recent multi-trillion dollar stimulus response and fatality rates from the pandemic surpassing the number of Americans who died in the First World War — maintaining the military industrial complex remains a top priority for a majority of lawmakers on both sides of the aisle.

This lack of vision is unsurprising considering that, given all those aforementioned circumstances, Congress has only been able to provide one $1,200 check to Americans who are facing the challenges of this “new normal” directly. Despite attempts from the Trump administration to encourage Americans to “find something new” and get back to work, many industries will not recover, leaving workers struggling to transition in a new world with limited opportunities.

Within that $740 billion defense legislation, a wide array of defense related “priorities” are being considered and funded, including $22 billion for nuclear weapons and their associated costs. That amount roughly translates to 1.56 million monthly relief payments, or 6.6 billion N95 respirator masks.

This hefty price tag for U.S weapons of mass destruction falls in line with the trillion dollar modernization plans scheduled over the next decade. But the Senate Armed Services Committee approved an amendment to be included in the Senate version of the legislation sponsored by Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) that would allocate $10 million to “carry out projects related to reducing the time required to execute a nuclear test if necessary.”

The proposal on nuclear testing comes after reports earlier this year that the Trump administration raised the prospect of resuming nuclear testing as a negotiating tactic against Moscow and Beijing as part of its futile quest for trilateral arms control negotiations. Because of the enormous environmental and public health dangers associated with nuclear weapons testing, the United States has not conducted an explosive test since 1992, checking the efficacy and reliability of its weapons with alternative tests that produce no nuclear yield, like computer simulations.

Sen. Cotton’s amendment received push back in the House version of the national defense legislation, which includes an opposing amendment that passed 227-179 to prohibit funding from being used “to conduct or make preparations for any explosive nuclear weapons test that produces any yield.” This opposing House amendment was adopted largely on party lines however, meaning that unless Sen. Cotton’s amendment is removed in the Senate appropriations committees, Congress will be heading towards a contentious debate over nuclear weapons testing when the House and Senate debate the two versions of the NDAA in conference later this year.

“We do not need to do live nuclear testing, and the reason we are concerned about this is because the Senate has actually put $10 million into their version of this defense bill to do precisely that,” House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam Smith (D-Wash.) said. “We want to make it clear, we don’t think it’s a good idea to do live nuclear testing.”

Local and state government officials also criticized the administration on the testing issue. Rep. Dina Titus (D-Nev.) and Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) have filed companion bills in the House and Senate to prevent nuclear testing at the Nevada National Security Site north of Las Vegas. Rep. Steven Horsford (D-Nev.), whose congressional district includes the security site, co-sponsored the Titus bill, citing safety concerns and the lack of need to resume testing.

Horsford said the administration “has repeatedly advocated for policies that would compromise the safety of Nevadans, and this recent discussion of resuming nuclear testing in our state is yet another example of such disrespect.”

Neighboring state officials also had concerns due to fallout from previous tests being blown across state lines into neighboring states and the negative health consequences those tests create for communities at or near the test sights. Rep. Ben McAdams (D-UT)  linked his criticism to a 1997 National Institute of Cancer study which found that every state received some level of fallout from nuclear testing and that 200,000 cases of thyroid cancer alone were associated with it. 

“There is even proposed funding in the Senate for [Nevada] Test Site readiness at a time when thousands of Utahns are still suffering and dying from radiation exposure related cancers,” McAdams said. “This is unconscionable.”

This is where our reliance on military dominance has brought us. Our government, faced with a pandemic on a level that only an institution with its size and power could manage, has found itself completely incapable of keeping its people safe and instead has prioritized the wallets of defense contractors on the backs of the communities who are desperate for help.

Our misplaced funding priorities are so absurd, it caught the attention of late-night show host Seth Meyers:

“Amid a national health crisis and record unemployment, the federal government, led by a bored and sadistic president, has abandoned us. They simply do not care about the 140,000 Americans who have died, the tens of millions who have lost jobs, the 5 million who’ve lost health insurance or the 23 million who face eviction in the coming months. This is the result of decades of conservative governance that has raided the Treasury to dole out billions in defense spending and tax cuts for the wealthy, while hollowing out everything else.”

These misplaced priorities were a problem before the pandemic. Last year, the Centers for Disease Control budget was only $7 billion, less than 1 percent of the Pentagon budget. Those figures alone tell us what we need to know about where our priorities have been misguided. In December of 2019, the Trump administration supported a rule change to kick 700.000 people off of food stamps and pruposed making major cuts to the Center for Disease Control in favor of increasing the nuclear weapons budget and producing new nuclear warheads. The urgency of the pandemic however has unified progressives under the message that we cannot continue defense spending at seemingly “normal” rates.

“Last year, the Pentagon budget was 90 times the budget of the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). This year — in the midst of a pandemic — that gap has widened further, with Congress proposing $8 billion in funding for the CDC, while the proposed Pentagon budget has ballooned to a record-breaking $740 billion, said CPC Co-Chairs Congressman Mark Pocan and Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal.“Congress’s priorities are so severely unbalanced that — even as millions of people across the country fall ill from the novel coronavirus — our leaders refuse to muster the political will to reinvest wasteful Pentagon spending in programs that will keep Americans safe and healthy.”

Returning to nuclear testing will not bring Beijing and Moscow to the table for trilateral arms control talks and would likely put Washington in a worse negotiating position. As Sarah Bidgood, Director of the Eurasia Nonproliferation Program at Middlebury’s Center for Nonproliferation Studies put it:

“If a U.S. rapid test is a signal intended to drive Russia and China to the negotiating table, it cannot then also be the consequence if they do not acquiesce. Conversely, if the prospect of a U.S. test is the signal and the test itself is the threat, then there is little reason to think officials in Moscow or Beijing will be especially compelled. Testing on U.S. soil would put the health and safety of American citizens in jeopardy, but it would not convey new information about U.S. capabilities that could change Russian or Chinese views on arms control.”

As we approach the 75th anniversaries of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagaski, it is vital that United States policy makers recognize the dangerous path towards nuclear escalation this administration has put us on. The prioritization of resources towards nuclear weapons and considering a return to nuclear testing puts the security and health of every American at risk. New nuclear testing risks creating a whole new generation of victims from fallout, and it does not increase our likelihood of creating new arms control agreements between world powers.

We need real human security. COVID-19 has highlighted and exasperated negative consequences of our misplaced funding priorities and it is more critical than ever that those needs are realized as the pandemic continues to disrupt our society, leaving immeasurable damage. Nuclear testing will make American communities sick instead of safe, and this attempt at brinksmanship will fail to convince Russia or China to sit down at the negotiating table.

We need masks, not missiles. We need to put people over the Pentagon.

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