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Let’s Not Defend the Pentagon Budget

American deference to the military-industrial complex bloats the Department of Defense and wastes taxpayer dollars.

Words: Savannah Wooten
Pictures: Erol Ahmed
Date:

Earlier this month, in his protracted bid to become the speaker of the House for the 118th Congress, Representative Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) reportedly struck a deal with holdouts that would seek to roll back all federal spending to fiscal year 2022 levels. Following this promise would entail cutting military spending by $75 billion — the mere prospect of which has sparked heated debate within an already fractured GOP.

There is much to critique about a secret deal that risks a government shutdown and devastating cuts to important investments in climate mitigation, education, and public health. But as politicians, pundits, and the public react to the news of this deal, it is crucial to resist defending the sky-high Pentagon budget and its current excesses. Here’s why.

ALWAYS LOOKING THE OTHER WAY

Even at fiscal year 2022 levels, the Pentagon already spends well over three-quarters of a trillion dollars — roughly half of the nation’s annual discretionary spending. This funding continues to flow despite the agency failing its fifth consecutive audit in November 2022. The Department of Defense requests and receives increases each year. For example, just last year, President Joe Biden requested a whopping $813 billion for the Pentagon, more than $30 billion over the previous year’s budget. Congress not only readily acquiesced to this request but also added $45 billion more in pet projects and extraneous spending that neither the president nor the Pentagon even asked for, paving the way for a final appropriations deal that landed at $858 billion for the Pentagon. These never-ending top-ups are made possible by members of Congress and their military-industrial allies who constantly jockey to add billions on top of the already bloated budget.

The Pentagon has been effectively placed “out of bounds” by our quintessential American deference to the military and the tacit agreement on Capitol Hill not to question the agency’s spending.

There is a clear motivation for these top-ups, and it’s not to keep Americans safe: it is, instead, that military contractors and their wealthy leaders benefit from high military spending. About half of the military budget goes straight into contractors’ pockets each year, meaning that the weapons industry will receive about $452 billion from US taxpayers this year alone. On top of this, Members of Congress on the House and Senate Armed Services Committees often receive notable campaign contributions from defense contractors and use their positions on the committees to angle for in-district production facilities and benefits. The cycle self-sustains. All this, even as servicemembers suffer from high rates of food insecurity and poverty.

For years, Congress has willfully ignored the Pentagon’s cost ineffectiveness, outlandish accounting, and the gross excesses it reaps in without having to diligently monitor or report out on its own budget. As such, the Pentagon has been effectively placed “out of bounds” by our quintessential American deference to the military and the tacit agreement on Capitol Hill not to question the agency’s spending — a posture that ensures that military brass and their industry allies continue to receive massive, indiscriminate payouts.

WHY AREN’T WE SAFER?

If shelling out billions to defense contractors kept us safe, we would be the safest country in the world. We’re not.

The United States spends more than the next nine countries combined on its military. Russia’s military budget is 1/10th the size of ours, and we spend two and a half times as much on the military as China. And yet, we are in year three of a mismanaged pandemic that has killed over a million people in the United States alone, reckoning with a failed coup attempt on the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021 that the “best security apparatus in the world” did nothing to prevent, and watching climate-linked natural disasters uptick with alarming speed. None of these challenges have been addressed by an unaccountable and out-of-control Pentagon budget.

Considering where this funding could have been otherwise spent brings the staggering scope of these decisions into plain sight. For instance, $45 billion is both the amount added by Congress on top of what the president requested and the sum total of every climate justice provision in Biden’s fiscal year 2023 request. We must not just bring wasteful Pentagon spending to an end — we must also reinvest that funding into sustaining our collective livelihoods as we hurtle toward an unlivable planet. Certainly, climate investments, social safety nets, or affordable healthcare programs would do more for our collective safety and protection than authorizing a 13th warship.

Ultimately, no one who claims to take Americans’ health and well-being seriously should be rushing to defend the United States’ exorbitant spending on weapons, war, and defense contractors. It’s time to hold the Pentagon accountable for repeatedly wasting taxpayer dollars. Congress must instead choose to fund the human needs and tools that will actually make us safer.

Savannah Wooten is a Pentagon spending reduction advocate at Public Citizen, where she leads the organization’s advocacy efforts to reduce military spending and reinvest in human needs priorities.

Savannah Wooten

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