Many liberals and progressives in the Democratic Party have been loudly calling for the defunding of police departments around the country after the tragic death of a black man, George Floyd, at the hands of a white Minneapolis police officer. While defunding the police — not to be confused with disbanding the police — means different things to different people, most advocates propose redirecting a portion of city and county police budgets to social programs, mental health intervention, combating homelessness, and affordable housing programs.
Conservatives and Republicans have generally pushed back against calls to defund the police. They typically maintain that the level of police misconduct is overstated, that police departments just need to be reformed, and that violent crime and property crime will increase if police department budgets are cut. In response to some major cities calling for defunding the police, Donald Trump simply said, “We won’t be defunding our police. We won’t be dismantling our police. We won’t be disbanding our police. We won’t be ending our police force.” Certainly the president knows that funding levels for police departments are decided on the local level without any input whatsoever from the federal government?
There is, however, one area of government spending that liberals, conservatives, Democrats, and Republicans are united on that they don’t want defunded. Even though it is one of the largest expenditures of the federal government and is unnecessary and destructive in so many ways, these groups from across the political spectrum don’t want to defund the military in any way. And of course, Trump has pushed for higher military budgets ever since he was elected.
The Democratic-controlled House (H.R.6395) and the Republican-controlled Senate (S.4049) each just passed their own version of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) for fiscal year 2021 (Oct. 1, 2020–Sept. 30, 2021). The bipartisan votes in the House and Senate were 295 to 125, and 86 to 14.
According to the Congressional Research Service’s publication Defense Primer: Navigating the NDAA, “Unlike an appropriations bill, the NDAA does not provide budget authority for the Department of Defense (DOD). Instead, the NDAA establishes or continues defense programs, policies, projects, or activities at DOD and other federal agencies, and provides guidance on how the appropriated funds are to be used in carrying out those authorized activities.” Budget authority is provided in subsequent appropriations legislation.
The House and Senate bills authorize FY2021 appropriations and set forth “policies for Department of Defense (DOD) programs and activities, including military personnel strengths.”
Specifically, both bills authorize appropriations to the DOD for:
• Procurement, including aircraft, weapons and tracked combat vehicles, shipbuilding and conversion, and missiles
• Research, Development, Test, and Evaluation
• Operation and Maintenance
• Working Capital Funds
• Chemical Agents and Munitions Destruction
• Drug Interdiction and Counter-Drug Activities
• The Defense Inspector General
• The Defense Health Program
• The Armed Forces Retirement Home
• Overseas Contingency Operations;
• The Space Force
• Military Construction
Both bills also authorize personnel strengths for active duty and reserve forces and set forth policies regarding:
• Military personnel
• Acquisition policy and management
• International programs
• National Guard and Reserve Forces facilities
• Compensation and other personnel benefits
• Health care
• DOD organization and management
• Civilian personnel matters
• Matters relating to foreign nations
• Strategic programs, cyber, and intelligence matters
The bills also authorize appropriations for base realignment and closure activities and maritime matters, and authorize appropriations and set forth policies for Department of Energy national security programs, including the National Nuclear Security Administration and the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board.
Both the House and Senate versions of the NDAA would fund defense for fiscal year 2021 at the obscene amount of $740.5 billion.
The conservative case was made by Andrew Lautz of the National Taxpayers Union and Jonathan Bydlak of the R Street Institute’s Fiscal and Budget Policy Project:
With resources more limited than ever, areas of the budget that were off-limits for years should now be more closely scrutinized. At the top of that list should be the single largest part of the federal discretionary budget, an entire category of spending that has long been off the table: the Pentagon.
Republicans in Congress need to start tackling the Pentagon budget just as boldly as they do other areas of discretionary spending. Doing so would put our nation on a better fiscal path and create opportunities for unlikely political alliances. Conservative figures like Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and former Rep. Mick Mulvaney (R-S.C.) for years advocated restraint at the Pentagon; two of the most recent efforts to restrain the Pentagon’s budget in the coming year come from staunchly progressive members of Congress: Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.).
The liberal case for defunding the Pentagon was made by Senator Sanders. Addressing directly the NDAA, he said,
Under this legislation, over half of our discretionary budget would go to the Department of Defense at a time when tens of millions of Americans are food insecure and over a half-million Americans are sleeping out on the street.
Moreover, this extraordinary level of military spending comes at a time when the Department of Defense is the only agency of our federal government that has not been able to pass an independent audit, when defense contractors are making enormous profits while paying their CEOs outrageous compensation packages, and when the so-called War on Terror will cost some $6 trillion.
If the horrific pandemic we are now experiencing has taught us anything it is that national security means a lot more than building bombs, missiles, nuclear warheads and other weapons of mass destruction. National security also means doing everything we can to improve the lives of tens of millions of people living in desperation who have been abandoned by our government decade after decade.
Sanders introduced an amendment to the NDAA that would “reduce the military budget by 10 percent and use that $74 billion in savings to invest in communities that have been ravaged by extreme poverty, mass incarceration, decades of neglect, and the Covid-19 pandemic.” It didn’t pass.
Conservatives at the Heritage Foundation — who seem to have never seen a defense budget that was high enough — took notice of the Politico articles. Writing in “What the ‘Defunding the Pentagon’ Articles Don’t Tell You,” Thomas Spoehr, who “serves as director of Heritage’s Center for National Defense where he is responsible for supervising research on matters involving U.S. national defense,” says that “both pieces lack some information that would contribute to a richer, more informed discussion of this critically important topic.” His article’s three key takeaways are:
1. National defense now consumes the smallest portion of the U.S. federal budget in a hundred years — 15% — and continues to shrink.
2. Our defense responsibilities include security commitments to NATO, Japan, South Korea, international sea lanes, and other areas.
3. If the nation is going to effectively counter China, Russia, and others, continued military rebuilding following years of budget cuts is necessary.
It is no surprise that “prior to joining Heritage, Spoehr served for more than 36 years in the U.S. Army, attaining the rank of Lieutenant General.”
Spoehr’s first point is a typical conservative smokescreen to justify higher defense budgets. By talking about the defense budget in terms of a percentage of something (GDP, the total federal budget, prior years, et cetera) instead of absolute numbers, conservatives can deflect attention from the obscene level of defense spending. And even worse, defense spending is actually much higher than the budgeted amount. Economist Robert Higgs has showed that “the total amount of all defense-related spending greatly exceeds the amount budgeted for the Department of Defense.” He calculated — ten years ago — that real defense spending was more than a trillion dollars a year. It is certainly not a penny less now.
Spoehr’s second point is certainly true. The concern that he never raises is “Why?” Why should the U.S. Department of Defense, funded by U.S. taxpayers, and charged with defending the United States, have “security commitments to NATO, Japan, South Korea, international sea lanes, and other areas”?
Spoehr’s third point assumes that the United States needs to counter “China, Russia, and others.” That is only because U.S. foreign policy is reckless, belligerent, and meddling instead of being a Jeffersonian foreign policy of neutrality, nonintervention, peace, commerce, and honest friendship with all nations — entangling alliances with none. And it is simply not true that there have been years of defense budget cuts. All one has to do is look up the figures. Because of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, defense spending rose from $470.55 billion in 2001 to the obscene level of $849.87 billion in 2010. It declined in 2011, 2012, 2013, and 2014; basically stayed level in 2015, 2016, and 2017; and then rose in 2018 and 2019.
Because the Department of Defense functions as the Department of Offense, it is the Pentagon that needs to be defunded.