The annual US defense budget has never been crafted through a particularly transparent process. Now, a global pandemic has taken the yearly passage of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) from merely murky to downright opaque.
Normally characterized by late-night sessions of debate and hundreds of offered amendments, the passage of the defense bill is often deemed a bipartisan effort. However, updated processes in the House and Senate to encourage social distancing during the Covid-19 pandemic—such as only allowing members to vote in shifts, with thorough cleanings between groups—threaten to severely limit amendments to the bill when it comes to the House floor later this month. That puts us in danger of a defense spending spree rubber-stamped by Congress. And this year’s version of the NDAA—for which the Trump administration has proposed a budget of $740.5 billion—is poised to benefit one party more than any other: the arms industry and its lobbyists, who are seeking to cash in while overriding the opinions of the American public on key national security issues.
The Trump administration’s quest for military dominance and its campaigns of maximum pressure—such as the effort to provoke regime change in Iran—stand to cost taxpayers tens of billions in weapons modernization costs this year alone, for both nuclear and conventional systems. Of particular concern is the cost of building new Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs). Former secretary of defense William J. Perry has described ICBMs as “some of the most dangerous weapons in the world”; if the president were to receive warning of a potential attack—even one that could be a false alarm—he would only have a matter of minutes to decide whether to launch an ICBM. That increases the chances of an accidental nuclear war.
For both the 2020 NDAA and this year’s fiscal year 2021 budget, representatives suggested amendments that would require the Pentagon to investigate whether a new ICBM were needed at all. In both years, the amendments were defeated in the House by a solid block of Republicans and a significant number of Democrats—in part thanks to lobbying by defense tech company Northrop Grumman, which stands to make billions building the missiles. Northrop Grumman is currently on course to receive a sole-source contract to build a new ICBM, which could boost the missile’s cost beyond the current estimates of $85 billion to $150 billion.
Without firm congressional action, the Pentagon’s multi-decade nuclear weapons buildup may proceed unchallenged, or even increase in cost. Some already estimate that spending could add up to as much as $2 trillion over the next 30 years. Marshall Billingslea, the special presidential envoy for arms control, boasted in May that the United States knows how “to spend the adversary into oblivion.” It’s now clear that he was being sincere. The real question is whether the American people will suffer the same oblivion.
In the Senate, adjustments to the already misguided defense budget requested by the Trump administration underscore the dysfunctional character of the congressional budget process. One such adjustment is an increase of $50 million for biological threat reduction, passed by the Senate Armed Services Committee. It’s a meaningful step in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic, because it will help protect against future outbreaks of disease, including any that might be perpetrated by US adversaries. The budget allocated to health and human services is just a fraction of the NDAA, at $106 billion, and the additional funding for biological threat reduction is rooted in a strategy that protects the health and safety not just of US citizens but of people around the globe. Even so, it is pennies in comparison to other costly and unnecessary expenditures.
The $4.2 billion in total funding for the replacement of the nuclear-armed Ohio-lass submarine is over 80 times more than the Senate’s prescribed increase to biological threat reduction, and four times the budget allocated to health and human services. To add insult to injury, the latest version of the defense bill would increase funding for the submarines by $175 million over the amount requested by the Trump administration this year—a fact that the ships’ builder, General Dynamics, can only celebrate. The bill is littered with pork for weapons manufacturers, such as the addition of over a dozen more Lockheed Martin F-35 combat aircraft than the Pentagon asked for, plus $10 million to prepare for resuming nuclear weapons testing—something that over 70 percent of Americans oppose.
In the midst of this spending spree, new processes instituted because of the pandemic mean that only a handful of amendments are allowed to be offered during general consideration of the defense bill on the floor of Congress. It would be hard to argue that the 57 members of the House Armed Services Committee—who are themselves only able to offer limited amendments in committee consideration of the bill—represent the entire country. If a budget package worth $740.5 billion is allowed to pass in a process that suppresses the voices of most representatives, what does this signal for the future of the legislative process?
The revolving door between the defense industry, the Pentagon, and Congress has consistently benefited those on the inside, leaving the taxpaying majority to pick up the bill. To combat that, bold action must be taken now. Senator Bernie Sanders, as well as Representatives Barbara Lee and Mark Pocan in the House, have suggested a 10 percent decrease to the Pentagon budget, a savings of roughly $70 billion. They say that money should instead be redistributed to pandemic response, jobs, education, housing, and other urgent needs.
If legislators continue to pour money into endless wars and US military superiority, it will be a slap in the face to the millions of Americans now struggling economically, as well as the health care professionals who have not been given adequate protection while responding to Covid-19. No one knows when the pandemic will end. But it’s certain that the weapons promised in this year’s Pentagon spending bill will continue to cost us for years to come.