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29 Progressive lawmakers demand military budget cuts

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) at Women's March on NYC 2019. (Dimitri Rodriguez/Flickr)
May 20, 2020

The Progressive bloc of House Democratic lawmakers are calling for cuts to next year’s defense budget in an effort to free up funding for pandemic response spending.

On Tuesday, 29 lawmakers sent a letter to the House Armed Services Committee, calling on the committee to lower defense spending in order to free up more national budget funds. The letter was organized by Rep. Mark Pocan (D-WI) a co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, and Rep. Barbara Lee (D-CA). The letter is signed by many members of the Progressive Caucus, including Reps Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), Ilhan Omar (D-MN), and Rashida Tlaib (D-MI).

“We write to request a reduction in defense spending during the coronavirus pandemic,” the letter begins.

The lawmakers are not seeking a cut in the overall national budget, but are instead asking for defense spending to be reduced to reallocate federal funds to the coronavirus response. The letter does not list a specific budget proposal, but calls for defense spending to be “below last year’s,” which was $738 billion for 2020.

“As you draft this year’s National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), we encourage you to authorize a level of spending below last year’s authorized level. Congress must remain focused on responding to the coronavirus pandemic and distributing needed aid domestically,” the letter continues. “In order to do so, appropriators must have access to increased levels of non-defense spending which could be constrained by any increase to defense spending.”

As Politico reported, if some of the lawmakers refuse to support a budget that does not contain a cut in defense spending, it could deprive the Democratic party of leverage when the budget comes up for debate. If just 19 of the lawmakers oppose the defense budget, Democrats will not have the majority to pass a budget in the house without at least some Republican support.

Last year Democrats in the House passed a budget, which was opposed by the Republican-controlled Senate, forcing both sides to compromise. If the Democrats maintain party unity, they could potentially pass a bill in the House with little or no Republican support, but their budget would face much tougher odds in the Senate.

The 2020 budget fight dissatisfied many members of the same progressive wing with the final compromise budget that dropped provisions seeking to limit President Trump’s war powers and provisions that would have blocked Trump from reallocating defense funds for wall construction. Progressive lawmakers have reportedly signaled they will once again pursue those conditions in the 2021 budget.

House Armed Services Chairman Adam Smith has reportedly signaled he would not pursue any defense budget increases, but it is not clear if he would go further in also supporting budget cuts. Republicans are in turn looking to maintain defense spending increases, and as of February Trump had already outlined at least $705 billion in spending, to include a three percent pay increase for troops next year.

“In the last three years alone – during a time of relative peace – we have increased annual defense spending by more than $100 billion, almost 20 percent,” the Progressive caucus letter states. “This has occurred during a period without any military action authorized by this Congress. Right now, the coronavirus is our greatest adversary. It has killed more than 90,000 Americans, far surpassing the number of casualties during the Vietnam War. We must remain focused on combating the coronavirus and not on increasing military spending that already outpaces the next 10 closest nations combined.”

U.S. spending for the coronavirus has also become a topic of debate. Adding together a more than $2 trillion coronavirus relief bill passed in March, and an estimated $4 trillion more in economic action by the Federal Reserve, the Washington Post reported the U.S. has spent more than $6 trillion on the coronavirus response. House Democrats have been weighing an additional $3 trillion in coronavirus relief spending in recent weeks.