Boosting the Pentagon at the Expense of Domestic Programs Puts Lives at Risk

Pentagon spending is at one of the highest levels in history, but you would never know it if you only listened to the Pentagon, the generals, and military hawks in Congress. Even before President Trump’s proposed $54 billion increase in Pentagon and related spending, announced in May of this year, U.S. military spending was higher than at the peak of Ronald Reagan’s military buildup. The United States spends more than the next eight largest military spenders in the world combined. Six of those eight countries are U.S. allies.

The Trump administration’s proposed increase of $54 billion is a hefty sum in its own right. According to figures compiled by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) the Trump increase is almost as large as the entire military budget of France, and larger than the military budgets of the United Kingdom, Germany or Japan. And it is only $12 billion less than the military budget of Russia. The Senate and House armed services committees want to push Pentagon spending even higher — tens of billions more than Trump’s massive increase. There may be problems with U.S. defense policy, but a lack of money isn’t one of them.

The Pentagon buildup will come at a high price, not only in dollars but also in lost economic opportunities and unmet human needs. Under the Trump plan, every dollar in additional Pentagon funding will be matched by a corresponding cut in diplomacy and domestic spending. Public investments in the environment, nutrition, health care, home heating, housing and transportation. The drive to enrich the Pentagon comes at a time when that agency already accounts for over 54% of the federal discretionary budget. The discretionary budget covers everything the federal government does other than entitlement programs like Social Security and Medicare, including all of the services mentioned above. Under current plans, the Pentagon would devour an even larger portion of the discretionary budget.

Neither the Trump proposal nor its Congressional counterparts are done deals. The budget process will play out through the end of this year, plenty of time for citizens to weigh in with their members of Congress to express their views on what our priorities as a country should be.

What’s At Stake?

The Trump administration’s proposed cuts in domestic programs are steep, including a 31% cut in the budget of the Environmental Protection Agency; a 20% cut at the Department of Labor; and a 13% cut at the Department of Housing and Urban Development, which has never recovered from the massive cuts in subsidized housing programs that were implemented in the 1980s. If these cuts go through, our air and water will be dirtier. Dangerous chemicals will go unregulated. Measures to address climate change will be abandoned. Workers who have been cheated of their wages or forced to work in unsafe conditions will have less hope of help from their own government in addressing these problems. Subsidized housing will deteriorate due to lack of maintenance. And the construction of new housing for homeless and low-income individuals and families will grind to a halt.

It’s important to remember that the programs that are on the chopping block were already underfunded, with help beyond the reach of millions of Americans in need. If implemented, these new cuts will add insult to injury.

Just a few examples are needed to illustrate the human catastrophe entailed in the current budget plan, and how a shift away from wasteful Pentagon spending could free up the funds needed to preserve essential programs.

The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), more popularly known as the Food Stamp program, is slated for $190 billion in cuts over the next decade, a move that would not only increase hunger but would likely push over 5 million people into poverty. But while nutrition spending goes down by $190 billion over ten years, the Pentagon is scheduled to spend more than twice this amount — $400 billion — building, maintaining and deploying nuclear weapons. Excessive spending on nuclear weapons makes no one safer. But it does increase the risk that nuclear weapons might be used again one day, whether by accident or by a panicked president in a crisis.

The proposed budget would also eliminate six block grants that serve low and middle income communities. According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, these programs taken together cost $13 billion per year, and provide job training, mental health services, home heating assistance, substance abuse treatment, and child care assistance. This $13 billion is the equivalent of the cost of the latest Navy aircraft carrier, one of 12 it possesses.

Finally, in a move that has been blocked for the moment by the Senate’s failure to pass Trumpcare, the administration and its Republican allies in Congress have proposed cutting up to $772 billion from Medicaid over the next ten years, knocking as many as 14 million people off of health insurance. The cuts may yet be pursued through other budgetary maneuvers. With proposals for Pentagon and related spending now well over $600 billion per year, the Pentagon could receive a cool $6 trillion over that same time period. A fraction of that spending could restore the proposed cuts in Medicaid.

What Can Be Done

According to a recent poll by the University of Maryland’s Program for Public Consultation, a majority of Americans believe that the United States is spending too much on the Pentagon, even before the increases proposed by the Trump administration and some members of Congress. It’s time that our elected representatives heard that message loud and clear. The budget priorities reflected in the current budget plan will put lives at risk. The kind and level of cuts being contemplated will mean that more people will go hungry, more people will be sick, and more people will die for lack of aid in meeting their basic needs. If we want to head off this disaster in the making, Congress needs to hear from citizens who oppose the twisted priorities contained in the federal government’s current budget blueprint — at Town Halls, in constituent meetings, through letters to the editor, through demonstrations, and by any other creative methods we can come up with.

William D. Hartung is the director of the Arms and Security Project at the Center for International Policy.