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Congress's bloated defense budget is indefensible

Congress's bloated defense budget is indefensible
© Greg Nash

Much has been made of Congress’s first veto override of Donald TrumpDonald TrumpCaitlyn Jenner says election was not 'stolen,' calls Biden 'our president' Overnight Health Care: FDA authorizes Pfizer vaccine for adolescents | Biden administration reverses limits on LGBTQ health protections Overnight Defense: US fires 30 warning shots at Iranian boats | Kabul attack heightens fears of Afghan women's fates | Democratic Party leaders push Biden on rejoining Iran deal MORE’s presidency. Last week, both houses overwhelmingly re-passed the annual military budget bill, rebuffing Trump’s demand that they delete a provision directing the Pentagon to rename military bases honoring Confederate officers and add one stripping internet companies of liability protection for user-posted content, which is irrelevant to military spending.

But Congress failed to stand up to the president on an even more important feature of the bill. It rubber-stamped his request for $740.5 billion, $100 billion more than when he took office and the most since World War II in inflation-adjusted 2020 dollars. 

At a time when the country is facing a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic and its economic fallout, not to mention a looming climate crisis, it is imperative to rethink our priorities.

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We had a similar opportunity at the end of the Cold War 30 years ago. At that time, there was great excitement about what was then called a “peace dividend.” With the Cold War over, the thinking went, perhaps the U.S. government could finally use the billions it was lavishing on the military, the nuclear weapons complex and defense contractors for more socially useful ends.

But the peace dividend never happened. In fact, the military budget Congress just passed is 50 percent higher than the Cold War average in inflation-adjusted 2020 dollars, and the aggregate amount spent on the Pentagon in the first two decades of this century is a staggering $13.34 trillion. No other country’s military outlays come close. In fiscal 2019, the Pentagon’s budget was nearly three times bigger than China’s defense spending and more than 10 times larger than Russia’s. All told, the U.S. military budget in 2019 exceeded the next 10 countries’ defense budgets combined and single handedly accounted for a hefty 38 percent of military spending worldwide.

The trillions of dollars spent on the U.S. military do not buy true national security. For all of its might, the Pentagon is powerless against grave nonmilitary threats, from the aforementioned pandemic to the fact that tens of millions of Americans still breathe foul air, drink tainted water and struggle to pay for food, housing and health care. If we fail to address those challenges, we will never have true national security.

The Pentagon’s track record of reckless spending is just one of the more compelling reasons it makes sense to cut its budget. Dysfunctional internal controls, aided and abetted by years of lax congressional and administration oversight, have enabled it to waste tens of billions of dollars every year. In just the first decade of this century, the Pentagon was forced to cancel a dozen ill-conceived, ineffective weapons programs that cost taxpayers $46 billion, and the last 20 years are littered with a parade of overpriced, botched and bungled projects that are still in play, including the $1.5 trillion F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, the $67 billion Ground-based Midcourse [Missile] Defense system, the $43 billion KC-46 aerial refueling tanker and the $22-billion Zumwalt destroyer warship.

Compared to the Pentagon, federal agencies charged with safeguarding public health and the environment are barely scraping by. The Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) budget in fiscal 2020, for example, was a measly $9 billion, 26 percent less than it was 10 years ago in inflation-adjusted dollars, and its current workforce of 14,000 is the smallest since 1987.

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Although the nation’s air and water are considerably cleaner than they were before the EPA was founded, the agency still has plenty to do (especially now that the Trump administration has rolled back more than 100 environmental safeguards). At least 150 million people live in U.S. counties with unhealthy ozone or particulate pollution and nearly 200,000 people die every year from heart, lung and other diseases caused by microscopic air pollutant levels below EPA standards. Meanwhile, community water systems serving nearly 30 million people were found to have levels of lead and copper exceeding EPA standards between January 2015 and March 2018. Another 16 million people across 35 states drink water contaminated by perchlorate, a rocket fuel component used on U.S. military bases that can cause neurological damage in infants and young children.

The hundreds of billions the United States spends on the military annually do nothing to address these and other environmental threats. In fact, the Pentagon exacerbates them. Hands down, it is one of the world’s worst polluters. Besides its perchlorate problem, more than 4,000 installations across the country are home to 39,000 contaminated sites, 141 of which are on the EPA Superfund list. And although it significantly reduced its fossil fuel consumption over the last two decades, the U.S. military is still the world’s top petroleum consumer and thus the largest carbon polluter. Between 2001 and 2017, the five military branches collectively emitted 1.2 billion metric tons of carbon emissions, twice the annual output of all the passenger vehicles nationwide.

As the United States begins the herculean task of digging itself out from the worst economic downturn in generations, policymakers need to focus on rebuilding in smart, better ways and that means cutting unnecessary spending whenever possible. As they do, one thing is clear: The time is ripe to rein in a level of military spending that has delivered little true security and stolen from critical domestic priorities for far too long. 

Elliott Negin, a senior writer at the Union of Concerned Scientists, was a foreign news editor at NPR in the 1990s and the editor of Nuclear Times, a peace and disarmament magazine, in the 1980s.