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Why we will win the fight to cut the Pentagon budget

Congress recently defeated a measure to cut the Pentagon budget, but the movement pushing to reduce defense spending is growing.

This week, Senate Republicans unveiled their long-awaited COVID-19 “relief” legislation, and it falls cruelly, laughably short on almost every metric. The bill provides inadequate funding for testing and contact tracing, includes no money for states and localities, cuts federal unemployment benefits (while providing immunity for corporations who put their workers at risk), provides no rental or mortgage assistance, nor does it extend the eviction moratorium. But it does ensure that one group is well taken care of: the defense industry. The legislation provides nearly $30 billion for the Pentagon, $24 billion of which would go directly to the arms industry.

This comes on the heels of two major votes in the House and the Senate to cut the Pentagon budget by 10 percent. Both amendments were soundly defeated.

Yet while the picture may look bleak, there is cause for optimism about reducing the Pentagon budget. In fact, conditions look more favorable today than they have at any time for at least a decade. That’s owed to organizing inside of Congress, an energized progressive foreign policy movement, and a new national reckoning over budget priorities propelled into the nation’s consciousness by the national uprisings over systemic white supremacy and the coronavirus crisis.

Comparing the recent votes to cut the Pentagon budget with a similar vote in 2017 illustrates the point. Three years ago, the House voted on an amendment to the Defense Appropriations bill to cut the Pentagon budget by one percent, or just $7 billion. That year, 35 percent of House Democrats supported the cut. Contrast that with today’s House effort, led by Representatives Barbara Lee and Mark Pocan, which sought to chop 10 percent, or $74 billion, off the Pentagon’s topline. Today, 40 percent of House Democrats supported the amendment, despite the fact that members of their own party wrote the bill. And in a parallel Senate effort, led by Senators Bernie Sanders, Ed Markey, and Elizabeth Warren, nearly half of the Democratic Caucus voted for the amendment, including Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, who has not been known to be supportive of such measures.

These votes didn’t just happen. Since May, the Congressional Progressive Caucus has been pushing a strategy to call attention to the ostensible blank check for war that Congress is handing the Trump administration by passing massive Pentagon spending and policy legislation without any real constraints. Days before the vote, the CPC urged its members to oppose the National Defense Authorization Act without adoption of the Pocan-Lee amendment — something it has never done before. In the end, 43 Democrats voted against this year’s NDAA. The previous year, just eight did.

The inside efforts have been matched with enthusiastic organizing on the outside. The People over Pentagon coalition, which brings together a diverse set of organizations to dramatically reduce the size of the Pentagon budget in order to fund human needs, sent a letter to Congress signed by over 60 groups supporting the amendment; Win Without War activists alone have taken nearly 120,000 actions  — signing petitions, sending emails, and making calls to Congress — and activists have placed dozens of op-eds and LTEs around the country in support of this amendment.  

The energy coming from the progressive foreign policy movement is also buoyed by broad public support. A recent poll shows a majority want to transfer Pentagon spending to other priorities, such as combatting the coronavirus. And the issue is becoming a part of the national public discourse — from Seth Myers arguing that “decades of conservative governance that has raided the Treasury to dole out billions in defense spending,”to the Movement for Black Lives rolling out a legislative proposal that includes a (yet-to-be-written provision) to dramatically reduce the DOD budget.   

Despite these signs of progress, some might argue that the stranglehold of the arms industry over Congress will block any real chance of change. After all, the GOP’s latest proposal is really just business as usual on steroids. Indeed, every time a Pentagon spending bill passes, hundreds of press releases are sent out cheering on the federal dollars coming home for ships, planes, and bombs one day intended for war.

But this is where time and circumstances are changing things. The progressive movement is much more intersectional, and bolder, than it used to be. It’s no accident that the Sunrise Movement, a group whose mission is to combat the climate crisis, is in the anti-militarism fight while organizations like Win Without War are crying out for action on climate: our struggles are not just intertwined, our strategies are linked too. If we are going to be able to cut the Pentagon, we will need to replace the real investments and jobs Pentagon spending generates with something else. And that’s a perfect entree for the Green New Deal, which will not only lead to a better planet but also more employment and prosperity.

Perhaps the most important indicator that change is possible is the draft Democratic Party 2020 platform, which argues that national security can be provided for less defense spending, and that after two decades, it’s time to end our forever wars. Even as an aspirational document, the platform leaves much to be desired, and the devil is in the details; but that’s where the real work comes in.

Should Joe Biden be elected president, the progressive movement inside and outside of Congress is in its best position in years to cut the Pentagon budget. Not only are Pocan and Lee not giving up, they’re forming a new caucus on the issue. Senators Sanders and Warren continue to be forceful voices in the Senate and with the public. And the movement’s not slowing down: in response to the new GOP bill, 75 organizations just sent a letter to congressional leadership, amplifying a demand from April that no more COVID-relief money be spent on the Pentagon.

Finally, in 2021 for the first time in 10 years, lawmakers will have a major chance to reprioritize federal spending. That’s because the Budget Control Act of 2011, which locked in so-called “defense” and “non-defense” spending levels for a decade and prevented the transfer of money between those two categories, will expire. 

So let’s dream big and end the era of massive defense spending. Coupled with a possible shift to Democratic governance, major public support, and a fired up progressive movement, our moment to win is upon us.

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