Kentucky Senator Rand Paul did something that too few people in Washington have been willing to consider since the debate about how to meet the debt obligations of the United States has intensified with the Republican takeover of the US House.
Paul, a Republican with libertarian leanings, stepped out of his partisan corner and proposed a cut that most Republicans—and many Democrats—won’t like.
To find common ground, Paul said during a press conference last Wednesday, “Republicans would have to give up the sacred cow that says we will never touch a dollar in military [spending].”
The Kentuckian also suggested that Democrats should move on “welfare,” a predictable if vague reference to social spending. There’s a problem with “compromise” proposals of this sort. Republicans imagine, after decades in which domestic priorities have been sacrificed in order to fund the Pentagon, that now those priorities should be abandoned in order to achieve debt reduction. The reality is that the military-industrial complex can and should take the hit, and that some substantial portion of the savings from Pentagon spending cuts should be used to address human needs of low-income and working-class families that have been hard hit not only by inflation but also by the failure of Congress to renew and extend programs such as the child tax credit enhancement.
But that does not mean that Paul’s readiness to entertain military-spending cuts should be ignored.
Paul’s announcement must be understood as something more than just a quid-pro-quo proposal. The willingness of a prominent Republican to speak so openly about making Pentagon budget cuts a part of what are likely to be intense debates about the budget ought to provoke discussion on all sides.
That discussion was largely missing in the last Congress, when the Senate finished the year by approving a defense budget that hiked military spending by 8 percent above 2022 spending. The majority of members of the House and Senate didn’t just ditch their oversight responsibilities when it came to Pentagon costs. They made a mockery of them by approving $45 billion in spending that the White House didn’t even request. Wasteful programs involving outdated and dysfunctional weapons systems that even the Biden administration had acknowledged could be cut were kept alive by a Congress unwilling to impose even baseline accountability on the Pentagon.
The Senate vote was 83-11 in favor of the 2023 National Defense Authorization Act. Paul cast a “no” vote, as did four other Republicans: Mike Braun of Indiana, Josh Hawley of Missouri, Mike Lee of Utah, and Cynthia Lummis of Wyoming. Only six members of the Democratic caucus joined them in opposition: Cory Booker of New Jersey, Ed Markey of Massachusetts, Bernie Sanders of Vermont, Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, and Jeff Merkley and Ron Wyden of Oregon.
Opposition in the House was marginally greater, with 80 “no” votes on a key test coming from 45 Democrats and 35 Republicans. But at a time when tensions have increased in Ukraine and other hotspots, the reality was that the overwhelming majority of House members joined senators in approving over-the-top allocations for the Pentagon.
One of the Democratic “no” votes in the House came from Wisconsin Representative Mark Pocan, a stalwart critic of Pentagon waste, fraud, and abuse who has long talked about the billions that could be saved simply by agreeing to “limit the Pentagon spending that’s being used to fund the slush funds of defense contractors.”
In the last Congress, Pocan championed a pair of amendments to reduce defense spending. One of them, which Pocan cosponsored with Representative Barbara Lee of California and Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, proposed to cut overall defense spending by 10 percent. The other, which he and Lee proposed, would have simply cut spending back to the level requested by the Biden administration, for a savings of roughly $25 billion. The amendments gained significant traction among House Democrats but garnered very little Republican support.
Pocan warns that building the coalitions that are needed to cut Pentagon spending is difficult because “the military-industrial complex is alive and well.” After an early version of the NDAA passed the House last year, Pocan said, “The fact that the Pentagon budget continues to grow year after year is an embarrassment. In fact, we spend more on our defense budget than the next 11-highest spending countries combined.”
The military-industrial complex isn’t going away. It floods Capitol Hill with lobbyists, and fills the campaign coffers of friendly House and Senate members with donations from defense contractors. But if politicians as distinct as Mark Pocan and Rand Paul are both saying that it’s time to cut the Pentagon budget—even if the ideas for what to do with the savings may differ—it’s time to start taking this idea seriously.