COVID Immunity? The Pentagon Budget’s Got It

We live, do we not, in an age of chronic partisan dysfunction in Washington, a chasm unbridged even by the coronavirus crisis? But on one issue both sides can reach with ease ‘across the aisle’: the Pentagon budget.

On July 21 and 23, the House of Representatives and Senate adopted by massive margins – 295 votes to 125; 86 to 14 – a $740.5 billion National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA,): almost $2 billion per day, over $80 million a minute, $20,000 each second – and, incredibly, over $30 billion more than the amount ($705.4 billion) requested by the administration.

David B. Gleason from Chicago, IL [CC BY-SA 2.0 (]

David B. Gleason from Chicago, IL [CC BY-SA 2.0

En homage to the spirit of bipartisan bonhomie on display, I’m happy to provide interchangeable quotes from James Inhofe, Republican of Oklahoma, Chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee, and Adam Smith, Democrat of Washington, Chair of the House Armed Services Committee. “The NDAA,” said Inhofe, “gives our military the personnel, equipment, training, and organization” it needs to “thwart any adversary who would try to do us harm.” Smith could not agree more: “The bill we passed supports our troops, reflects our values, and provides for a strong national defense.”

Representative Smith declared himself “incredibly proud of the work that the House Armed Services Committee was able to accomplish this year, despite the challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic.” Time, perhaps, for a rousing rendition – a Donkey and Elephant duet – of ‘We Shall Overcome.’ If not overcome the challenges posed by COVID to the country – or COVID’s atrocious exacerbation of racial and socio-economic inequity – then COVID’s complication of a hallowed annual ritual: making vast sums of ‘Americans’ hard-earned tax dollars’ – three quarters of a trillion! – disappear in the maw of the conventional and nuclear war machine.


A valiant attempt was made, in the catastrophic COVID-context, to at least staunch the stupendous flow: an identical amendment  in House and Senate to “reduce the bloated Pentagon budget by 10 percent and invest that money in jobs, health care, and housing in communities in the United States in which the poverty rate is not less than 25 percent.” (No specific cuts were suggested, but salaries and healthcare were exempted from consideration.)

On July 21, the House amendment – introduced by two members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, Barbara Lee (California) and Mark Pocan (Wisconsin) – was defeated by 324 votes to 93; the following day, the Senate amendment – introduced by Ed Markey, Democrat of Massachusetts, and Vermont Independent Bernie Sanders – was also handily defeated, 77-23, though to the amaze and delight of progressives, Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer (New York) “proudly” supported the cut.

Sanders, Markey, Pocan and Lee.

Sanders, Markey, Pocan and Lee.

Reaction to the defeat mixed frustration with determination. Noting that “almost half” of Senate Democrats had voted to “invest in human needs” rather than “spending more on defense than the next 11 nations combined,” Senator Sanders vowed to “continue building a political movement, mobilizing the grassroots across America, to finally…realize Dr. Martin Luther King’s vision of a society that prioritizes social uplift over weapons of mass destruction.”

“Trillions of dollars,” Senator Markey reasoned, “did nothing to protect the American people from the Coronavirus pandemic. Defense spending can’t protect us from the destruction of the environment and the worsening climate crisis… It is time we fund education, not annihilation; Medicaid, not missiles.”

“There is a laundry list,” Representative Lee argued, “of ways we can better invest in America’s needs rather than feed into our military-industrial complex” and indulge in “senseless, outdated war preparation.” And for Representative Pocan, the fact that 93 members of the House “stood together to oppose a bloated budget…filled with administrative waste and Pentagon slush funds” shows that “progressive power is stronger than ever. We will keep fighting for pro-peace, pro-people budgets until it becomes a reality.”

Outside Congress, many ‘pro-peace, pro-people’ groups agreed: but while a statement from Win Without War predicted that “if we keep up this momentum, there’s no doubt, change is coming,” Paul Kawikwa of Peace Action cautioned that “Congress still needs to catch up with the will and needs of the electorate.” Next year might be better, but next year might be too late: “Right now, Congress must prioritize our spending on helping Americans during this pandemic.”


It is surely revealing that the amendment’s proposed savings – $74 billion – exceed by over $20 billion the combined total budgets of the State Department and the US Agency for International Development (USAID). More damning and dangerous even than the scale of its spending – more troubling and unconscionable even than its corrupt procurement practices, its mindboggling bureaucratic excesses, and its abject failure to provide audit-able accounts – is the hubristic worldview at the root and crown of the Pentagon’s power, a maniacal, almost messianic militarism fusing “our American way of life and our American way of war.”

Space Force Flag unveiling, White House

President Trump at unveiling of Space Force Flag, 15 May 2020. (White House photo)

The quote is from Space Force Commander General John W. Raymond, launching in June a ‘Defense Space Strategy starting from the same premise that “our way of life and way of war…require unfettered access to and freedom to operate in the space domain.”  But whatever the ‘domain’ – land, air, sea, cyber, now space – it’s the same way of thinking, killing and dying, dominating and intimidating. And it always requires ‘unfettered access, to practically illimitable funds.

Incredibly, even by 2020 standards, a few days after the NDAA was passed, Congressional Republicans attempted to lard the latest, now-stalled coronavirus relief package with a further $29 billion of Pentagon spending, ostensibly to help cover COVID-related overheads – a ‘necessity’ disputed even by hawkish Democrats – but also including over $7 billion for more weapons, and thus more mega-profits for Lockheed Martin, Boeing and other arms contractors already receiving significant relief funds. The $29 billion request succeeded in dividing even those appropriating brothers-in-arms Jim Inhofe and Adam Smith, uniting all Democrats in opposition to what Senator Patrick Leahy, Democrat from Vermont, rightly called “a wish-list from the Department of Defense for manufacturing of planes, ships, and other weapon systems.”

Leahy was one of only 10 Senate Democrats – joined by four budget-hawk Republicans – to vote against the budget. So, intriguingly, did the party’s new vice-presidential nominee, Kamala Harris of California, even though she opposed the 10% budget cut amendment. Given the immense coronavirus hit to public finances and the national economy, we can surely expect an incoming Biden-Harris Administration – or even a second Trump-Pence term – to seek at least to ‘flatten the curve’ of pandemic Pentagon spending.

But a new fiscal reality will not in itself generate or suggest the need for a new foreign policy worldview, a progressive decoupling of the American ways of life and war. And as we will see next month, there are worrying signs a change of administration will do little or nothing to change a bipartisan, reflexively militaristic mindset suited only to mishandling the true human tasks of our time.


Sean Howard


Sean Howard is adjunct professor of political science at Cape Breton University and member of Peace Quest Cape Breton and the Canadian Pugwash Group. He may be reached here.