Don’t cut the Build Back Better plan—cut the Pentagon’s budget

The president’s $3.5 trillion human-needs plan is facing severe cuts from key members of Congress. So why does the military get $7.5 trillion, no questions asked?

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After two decades of war—and nearly two years into a pandemic that just won’t end—it feels like our country is at a fork in the road. Down one way, we reinvest in our families and communities. Down the other, we follow a status quo that’s left too many Americans vulnerable.


At this crossroads, Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, a key figure in congressional negotiations, asked: “At some point, all of us, regardless of party, must ask the simple question: How much is enough?” 


Manchin was talking about the Build Back Better plan, the package of spending on health care, child care, paid family leave, community college, and climate initiatives that he has advocated cutting by more than half. 


Question of priorities


Unfortunately, this isn’t a case of a lawmaker looking to be a good steward of federal dollars. Like most of his peers, Manchin is fine with spending money—the question is what we spend it on.


The full Build Back Better plan has received widespread coverage for costing $3.5 trillion. But that’s the cost over 10 years, and it would be mostly paid for by fairer taxes on corporations and the very rich. Under pressure from Manchin and fellow Democratic Sen. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, Democrats now expect to advance a reconciliation measure coming in at or under $2 trillion.


What Manchin and others haven’t mentioned is that at the same time they’re looking to limit investments at home, they’ve supported a Pentagon budget of at least $7.5 trillion over the same 10-year period—twice the cost of the full Build Back Better plan.


So this isn’t ultimately a fight over spending. It’s a fight over priorities. 


Who would lose


Here’s who would be left out by Manchin’s proposed cuts to the Build Back Better plan.


A bill reduced to Manchin’s preferred $1.5 trillion level would nix nearly 2 million new jobs compared to a bill totaling $3.5 trillion. And Manchin’s wish to nix clean electricity investments not only nixes new jobs, it also protects moneyed interests in fossil fuels, including his own coal company


Manchin has also suggested much stricter requirements for the expanded child tax credit, which has lifted millions of children out of poverty. Manchin’s cuts threaten to plunge them back in. Meanwhile millions of seniors who could gain dental, health and vision coverage through Medicare are reportedly on Manchin’s chopping block, too.


What would happen if Manchin and others took Pentagon spending this seriously?  


Cuts but no sacrifice


Critics of the Pentagon budget on both the right and left have identified concrete cuts that could dramatically bring down the annual cost of Pentagon spending without sacrificing national security—by anywhere from $80 billion to $200 billion or $350 billion


In 2019, I co-wrote a study that found $350 billion in annual Pentagon cuts that we could achieve while keeping the U.S. as safe as ever. That level of cuts could fully fund the $3.5 trillion Build Back Better package all by itself.


Where could we cut? Well, start with the money we spent on the 20-year war on Afghanistan, which caused more than 200,000 deaths, cost more than $2 trillion, and still failed to prevent the collapse of the country or provide any lasting security benefits.


Then there’s the sprawl. The U.S. maintains more than 750 military installations around the world. Rather than keeping Americans safe, these bases—and the ships, planes, and troops that accompany them—are 20th-century relics that antagonize rivals and make armed conflict more likely. Even military officials have advocated cutting back. 


$7 trillion to contractors


Then there’s the infamous military-industrial complex—from the botched F-35 jet fighter to a dangerous 21st century nuclear arms race that will cost trillions. A study I co-wrote found that since 9/11, the country has handed over $7 trillion to military contractors—that’s twice the cost of the full Build Back Better plan.


And yet, at the end of September, the House voted to increase the Pentagon budget from $740 billion this year to $778 billion next year. Just last year, Manchin and Sinema both opposed a moderate, 10% Pentagon cut that could have saved $740 billion over 10 years by ending the Afghanistan war and cutting back on Pentagon waste. 


This isn’t the debate we’d be having if human needs and the Pentagon were subject to the same rules. But here we are, haggling over a $2 trillion difference in spending to keep kids out of poverty, give dental coverage (and dignity) to our elders, and create good jobs—while $7.5 trillion for war and money-guzzling corporations goes without question.


After two decades of failed wars, Congress should listen to the overwhelming majority of Americans: It’s time to take that money out of our failed wars and put it into programs that make Americans’ lives better.


- Lindsay Koshgarian directs the National Priorities Project at the Institute for Policy Studies.
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