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Bloated defense budget passes easily but Congress fights over safety net programs

Congress is more interested in preparing for an unlikely war with China than helping Americans at home.
Illustration of a stack of gold coins with rocket wings.
On Sept. 23, the House of Representatives passed a $768 billion package for the Pentagon.Chelsea Stahl / MSNBC

Joe Biden once famously said “Don't tell me what you value, show me your budget, and I'll tell you what you value.” Over the past week, Congress has depressingly proved the president was on to something.

Assuming the defense budget doesn’t go down, over 10 years that would mean almost $8 trillion to the Pentagon.

Though Democrats are tying themselves in knots over a 10-year $3.5 trillion budget reconciliation package -- and Republicans are uniformly opposing it -- on Sept. 23, the House of Representatives, with little rancor or controversy, passed a $768 billion package of goodies for the Pentagon.

Assuming the defense budget doesn’t go down (and it rarely does), over 10 years that would mean almost $8 trillion to the Pentagon. That would be more than double the cost of Biden’s “Build Back Better” agenda, which has been billed as a historic expansion of America’s social safety net.

Even in 2021, as Congress is considering historic pieces of progressive legislation, Washington still values defense dollars -- for wars that America shouldn’t and likely won’t fight -- over prioritizing the needs of the American people.

This is a bipartisan problem. The House defense bill, which includes close to $25 billion more than Biden had initially requested for Pentagon, had the support of 181 Democrats. And an amendment by Rep. Mark Pocan, D-Wisc., to cut the Department of Defense budget by 10 percent lost by a margin of 86-332.

Weeks after America ended its 20-year-war in Afghanistan in humiliation -- at a cost of more than $2.3 trillion -- both parties can’t seem to funnel more money into Pentagon coffers quickly enough.

How those funds are being spent -- and on what defense systems -- should in of itself be a scandal.

The House bill would, for example, authorize the purchase of 85 F-35 fighters, an aircraft so plagued with cost overruns and operational problems that the current chairman of House Armed Service Committee, Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash., calls it a “rathole.” The plane is estimated to cost more than $1.5 trillion over its lifetime and was previously labeled by the Pentagon official responsible for the acquisition of weapons systems, “acquisition malpractice.”

The House bill would also allow for the purchase of 24 F-15 EX jets for the Air Force, double the number requested by the Pentagon, an institution that is not exactly known for parsimony when asking Congress for money.

William Hartung, director of the Arms and Security Program Center for International Policy, points out another multibillion-dollar boondoggle in the House bill: “a new intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), known in Pentagon-ese as the Ground-Based Strategic Deterrent (GBSD).” ICBMs are particularly dangerous because, as Hartung notes, “The president would have only a matter of minutes to launch them in a crisis, increasing the risk of an accidental nuclear war based on a false alarm.” The Biden administration increased the budget for the weapons system from $1.4 billion to $2.6 billion and it’s estimated that the GBSD will cost at least $264 billion over its lifetime.

Is preparing for war with China more important than the $200 billion that would be invested in creating a universal preschool program?

All this spending is apparently worth it, says Rep. Mike Rogers of Alabama, the ranking Republican on the Armed Service Committee, because the bill is "laser-focused on preparing our military to prevail in a conflict with China."

Putting aside the fact that the chances of a U.S. conflict with China are highly unlikely, what does spending $768 billion to prevent against a slim possibility say about America’s priorities as a nation?

Is preparing for war with China more important than the $200 billion that would be invested, as part of the budget reconciliation package, in creating a universal preschool program that would benefit more than 5 million American children and save the average American family $13,000 a year?

Is building a new weapon that actually increases the chances of an accidental nuclear exchange of greater national benefit than making the United States the last wealthy country on earth to create a national paid medical leave program?

What about making community college tuition-free for two years? Or extending the child tax credit? Or ensuring that no low-income or middle-class American family spends more than 7 percent of their income on child care? Or reducing prescription drug prices and cutting the costs of health care for ordinary Americans?

Above all, is confronting a nation that doesn’t threaten the American people -- or building a new generation of ground-based nukes -- of greater importance than preparing the United States for the consequences of deadlier hurricanes, punishing heat waves and the extreme weather events associated with global warming?

If one were to ask the American people which they prefer, there likely wouldn’t be much of a debate. A new poll out this week from the Eurasia Group Foundation shows that “twice as many Americans want to decrease the defense budget as increase it.” The main reason Americans hold this view is that they want to see the money redirected to domestic priorities.

Twice as many Americans want to decrease the defense budget as increase it.

In short, they want the nation’s budget to reflect its values.

Eighteen months into a pandemic that has killed 700,000 Americans -- or 1 out of every 476 of our fellow citizens -- one might imagine that the nation’s leaders would be laser-like focused on strengthening the country’s defenses at home, rather than remaining fixated on overseas security threats that are unlikely to ever materialize. Indeed, one might even conclude that the entire way we think about national security should change -- to take into account the domestic challenges that put American’s in harm’s way and undermine our quality of life.

Washington, however, seems intent on preparing for the wrong fight.