Regardless of what Americans on the left or the right may think about the debt ceiling agreement reached over the Memorial Day weekend by President Biden and House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) there can be no serious debate about the fact that the deal provides a good sense of what is on and off the table when it comes to budget priorities.
Denying food to hungry people? Yes, that’s on the table. Despite the fact that the Food Research & Action Center says that “the expansion of cruel, harsh, and arbitrary time limits on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) for older unemployed and underemployed adults struggling in the labor market will only deepen hunger and poverty,” Democratic and Republican leaders agreed to a plan that limits access to nutrition programs.
Balancing budgets on the backs of poor and working-class people rather than the rich? Yes, that’s on the table. Even after being warned by House Progressive Caucus chair Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.) that “saying to poor people and people who are in need that we don’t trust them” is “terrible policy,” Biden and McCarthy agreed to just such a strategy. They also agreed to cut $1.4 billion intended to help the IRS go after wealthy tax cheats and corporate grifters.
Sacrificing environmental protections and the future of the planet? Absolutely on the table. The Center for Biological Diversity points to serious dangers with any plan that “expedites the climate-killing Mountain Valley Pipeline, dramatically rolls back the National Environmental Policy Act, and freezes nondefense spending for agencies including the Environmental Protection Agency and Interior Department in exchange for a modest raise of the debt ceiling.” But that didn’t stop a Democratic president and a Republican speaker of the House from agreeing to recklessly reduce support for environmental initiatives.
So what about targeting the huge blank checks for a military-industrial complex so behemothic that it can’t keep track of Pentagon waste, fraud, and abuse, let alone rampant profiteering by defense contractors? No, no, no. Taking meaningful steps to address the Department of Defense’s excess spending is most definitely off the table,
While US media outlets tended to talk around this aspect of the “compromise” struck by Biden and McCarthy, the BBC’s headline was appropriately blunt in summing up the deal: “Caps on spending, but not defense.”
“The agreement keeps non-defense spending flat next year, with a 1 percent rise in 2025, explained the BBC. “Defense spending would increase to $886 billion, which amounts to a 3 percent rise on this year.”
Of course, there are Republican hawks like South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham who want even bigger Pentagon outlays. But they needn’t worry. By the time the 2025 fiscal year rolls around, according to Defense News, the defense spending top line is expected to rise to $895 billion—a figure that puts it right on track to pass the $1 trillion line that Pentagon Comptroller Mike McCord says is likely to be surpassed well before the end of the decade.
Is all this Pentagon spending necessary? In a word: No!
“The United States is rushing toward a trillion-dollar Pentagon budget that enriches military contractors but entrenches massive fraud and waste, leaves the nation less secure, and pulls money away from priority human needs,” says Public Citizen President Robert Weissman. “For a just and secure society, it’s time to reverse course, cut Pentagon spending, and reallocate the savings to expanding health care, taking care of kids, addressing the climate crisis, and more.”
The Biden-McCarthy deal accelerates a warped approach to budgeting that tips the balance against domestic programs, explains consumer advocate and former presidential candidate Ralph Nader. By accepting that over half the federal operating budget will be “untouchable,” says Nader, a Democratic White House “leaves the GOP getting their cuts from necessary domestic programs like education, health, environment, and worker safety.”
Even a small cut to defense spending would make many domestic cuts unnecessary.
“Cutting just $100 billion could do so much good: it could power every household in the US with solar energy; hire one million elementary school teachers amid a worsening teacher shortage; provide free tuition for 2 out of 3 public college students; or cover medical care for 7 million veterans,” argued US Representative Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) earlier this year when she and Representative Mark Pocan (D-Wis.) proposed a modest reduction in Pentagon allocations.
As Pocan said, “More defense spending does not guarantee safety, but it does guarantee that the military-industrial complex will continue to get richer. We can no longer afford to put these corporate interests over the needs of the American people. It’s time to invest in our communities and make meaningful change that reflects our nation’s priorities.”
It’s not just Democrats who have suggested that cuts could be made in Pentagon spending. As the debt ceiling debate began to heat up in January, Kentucky Senator Rand Paul proposed that “Republicans would have to give up the sacred cow that says we will never touch a dollar in military [spending].”
Unfortunately, Biden and McCarthy bowed to the sacred cow and assured that federal dollars would keep flowing to the military-industrial complex—as part of a “compromise” that required unemployed and underemployed people to go hungry, and the planet to burn a little more rapidly.
Seventy years ago, a Republican president warned that excessive military spending placed the United States—and its Cold War rivals—on “a cross of iron.”
“It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children,” Dwight Eisenhower, who had served as supreme allied commander in the European Theater of Operations during World War II, declared in 1953.
The cost of one modern heavy bomber is this: a modern brick school in more than 30 cities. It is two electric power plants, each serving a town of 60,000 population. It is two fine, fully equipped hospitals. It is some fifty miles of concrete pavement. We pay for a single fighter plane with a half million bushels of wheat. We pay for a single destroyer with new homes that could have housed more than 8,000 people.
Eight years before he warned about the dangers of an unconstrained military-industrial complex, Eisenhower counseled, “Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed.”
So long as cuts to the Pentagon budget are “off the table,” as Joe Biden and Kevin McCarthy have confirmed they currently are, that theft will continue.
Note: This piece was updated to include the statement from Ralph Nader.