The United States may have completed its military withdrawal from Afghanistan last month, but Washington remains as committed as ever to expanding American empire. The House is poised to pass a military budget this week that’s even bigger than President Joe Biden requested, but left-leaning lawmakers are putting up a fight.
House progressives are leading a push to rein in excessive Pentagon spending, aiming to overturn a $24 billion boost to the top-line figure of next year’s defense spending authorization bill. The Pentagon is already spending around $740 billion per year, or about $1 million every minute—accounting for more than half of the federal discretionary budget. Altogether, US defense spending is higher today than it was at its peak during the Vietnam War, when adjusted for inflation. But this hasn’t stopped the president from pursuing a defense budget that exceeds the one proposed by former President Donald Trump, and it hasn’t stopped Congress from adopting another increase.
More than a dozen House Democrats quietly joined Republicans to approve a GOP amendment adding $24 billion more than Biden requested to the defense budget’s overall price tag. The Senate’s proposed defense budget is also much bigger than what Biden requested, with only Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren voting against the boost.
A group of progressive House Democrats—Representatives Barbara Lee of California, Mark Pocan of Wisconsin, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York—filed an amendment to the bill that would undo the multibillion-dollar increase, bringing the total down to what the Biden administration originally wanted. Pocan and Lee introduced a separate amendment to shrink the military budget by about 10 percent as well.
“Despite trillions of dollars poured into our endless military spending, this budget has failed to meet the greatest threats that our nation and our world faces today, including the COVID-19 pandemic, the climate crisis, and the needs of 140 million people living in poverty,” Representative Lee said in a letter to Representative Adam Smith, chair of the House Armed Services Committee. “Now is the time to shift our investments away from endless wars and toward addressing human needs.”
Still, the campaign to cut the ever-growing defense budget faces an uphill climb. “From my vantage point, I think we spend too much on our military budget,” House Rules Committee chair Representative Jim McGovern said during a hearing on Monday. “But I’m clearly in the minority after listening to everybody here speak today.”
Progressive lawmakers are also trying to advance a range of amendments that would challenge the hawkish US approach to foreign policy. Members of Congress consider the National Defense Authorization Act, or NDAA for short, “must-pass” legislation. It has been enacted for 60 years in a row, so it’s seen as one of the few real opportunities they get to advance their policy priorities. Nearly 800 amendments to the NDAA are being considered by the House Rules Committee, as Democratic leadership sifts through and decides which ones get a vote.
Representatives Jamaal Bowman of New York and Ro Khanna of California submitted an amendment to prohibit the US military from maintaining a presence in Syria. Other amendments renew efforts to block the sale of weapons to entities that commit human rights abuses. Representative Ilhan Omar of Minnesota introduced an amendment that prohibits the proposed sale of F35s and other weapons to the United Arab Emirates, while one submitted by Ocasio-Cortez and Virginia Representative Gerry Connolly would block the sale of weapons to the Saudi unit that killed Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018.
Lawmakers like Representatives Hank Johnson of Georgia, Nydia Velázquez of New York, and Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts are also going after human rights abuses at home, targeting a federal program that has helped militarize police departments across the country. Four separate amendments have been introduced to curb or completely end the 1033 program, which allows the Pentagon to transfer excess military equipment, including grenade launchers, mine-resistant armored vehicles, and firearms, to local law enforcement.
Also high on progressives’ list of priorities is an amendment, filed by Representatives Khanna, Pramila Jayapal, and Adam Schiff, that would end US complicity in the war and the blockade in Yemen.
“President Biden promised to use our leverage with Saudi Arabia to end this war, but the blockade and Saudi airstrikes continue,” Marcus Stanley, advocacy director at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft said in a statement. “The Khanna amendment offers an opportunity to genuinely end American support for Saudi aggression and take a crucial step to end the humanitarian crisis in Yemen.”