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Public Citizen Urges Congress to Lower Pentagon Budget

Public Citizen News / July-August 2021

By Sara Kate Baudhuin

This article appeared in the July/August 2021 edition of Public Citizen News. Download the full edition here.

In April, President Joe Biden announced the removal of the last remaining 3,500 troops in Afghanistan, marking the end of the longest running war in American history. In the last 20 years, the U.S. spent more than $1 trillion on military operations in Afghanistan and Pakistan. More importantly, this war has resulted in the loss of 2,300 U.S. soldiers, untold fatalities of Afghani citizens, and tens of thousands of injuries.

“This moment marks a powerful and urgent opportunity to re-examine the United States’ prioritization of military spending and consider alternatives to the massive funding the Pentagon receives each fiscal year,” said Public Citizen President Robert Weissman.

Estimates predict that the removal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan will save between $20-$50 billion in defense spending, which presumably should be reflected by a reduction in the Pentagon’s annual budget. However, the Biden administration’s initial budget blueprint revealed an increase in military funding for FY22. The request of $753 billion marks a 1.7% increase from the previous year’s defense budget allocation

This May, in response, Public Citizen collaborated with 39 other organizations to pen a letter to Congress urging reductions in the Pentagon budget. Addressed to the leaders of the defense appropriations subcommittees, this statement criticized the sheer magnitude of the U.S. military budget and its jarring disproportion compared to other budget line items. Specifically, the requested allocation for the U.S. Department of Defense is larger than the proposed funding for the U.S. Departments of State, Justice, Health and Human Services, Education, Transportation, and the Environmental Protection Agency combined. U.S. military spending comprises 39% of the globe’s defense spending and the U.S. spends more on the military than the next 11 highest spending countries combined.

Critics have long complained about Pentagon bloat, with military expenditures shooting up from a high baseline after 9/11, and jumping by more than $100 billion annually in the Trump budgets. For years, though, many members of Congress have been hesitant to advocate for defense budget reductions for fear of appearing weak on the issue of national security. In reality, though, a majority of Americans express a desire for a reduced Pentagon budget in favor of increased funding for education and health care domestically.

In 2020, Public Citizen launched the #peopleoverpentagon campaign, along with more than 25 other advocacy groups . Together, the coalition created a petition with over 140,000 signatures that advocated for a large Pentagon budget cut which would in turn be allocated towards urgent human needs in the U.S. In January 2020, Public Citizen helped deliver the petition to U.S. Reps. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.) and Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) in hopes of urging stronger congressional action.

A few months after the #peopleoverpentagon petition to Congress, U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and other key progressive lawmakers introduced an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) for FY21 which called for a 10% reduction to the defense budget. Public Citizen helped lead the way in generating support for the amendment, pulling together 60 other groups in support of this amendment. “The coronavirus crisis is a wake-up call for the long overdue imperative of shifting spending away from the Pentagon and investing instead in human needs,” Weissman declared at that time. “Even with the most advanced military weaponry in the world, the United States has proven utterly unprepared to handle a microscopic threat, thanks in no small part to underinvesting in public health. It’s time for the Sanders amendment, which would establish sensible priorities and shift money away from the Pentagon and to the nation’s many urgent needs.”

Public Citizen and allies pointed out that a 10% reduction in Pentagon spending would generate enough savings to end homelessness twice-over, produce 2 billion COVID-19 tests, or provide medical care to over 7 million veterans.

The NDAA amendment of 2020 received 23 votes in the U.S. Senate (including from then-Minority Leader Chuck Schumer) and 93 votes in the U.S. House of Representatives, where it was introduced by U.S. Reps. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) and Mark Pocan (D-Wis.) – highwater marks for recent congressional proposals to cut Pentagon spending.

Now, with the announced Afghan pullout, Public Citizen is insisting the Pentagon budget should be cut proportionately, as part of its long-term campaign to reallocate Pentagon funding to meet crucial domestic and human needs priorities.