It’s Not Progressive To Fund Medicare for All by Agreeing to a Bloated Military

House Progressives tried to tie funding for bold social programs to the military budget, dollar for dollar. That’s timid and wrongheaded.

Sarah Lazare May 15, 2019

Reps. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., and Mark Pocan, D-Wis., talk with the media at the Lansdowne Resort and Spa in Leesburg, Va., on Thursday, April 11, 2019. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

House Pro­gres­sives have fash­ioned what they may see as a prag­mat­ic response to the uncon­scionable bud­get­ing pri­or­i­ties of a U.S. gov­ern­ment that pours mon­ey into the Pen­ta­gon while con­strict­ing pub­lic goods like hous­ing assis­tance and edu­ca­tion. The chairs of the Con­gres­sion­al Pro­gres­sive Cau­cus, Reps. Prami­la Jaya­pal (D‑Wash.) and Mark Pocan (D‑Wis.), pro­posed in April that spend­ing caps for dis­cre­tionary domes­tic pro­grams should be raised in 2020 to match the dis­cre­tionary mil­i­tary budget.

Support for a program like Medicare for All should stem from the principle of solidarity—that an injury to one is an injury to all. The same solidarity should be extended to the lives of the tens of thousands of Yemeni people dying in a U.S.-backed war.

Pocan and Jayapal’s approach would, indeed, mark a depar­ture from the modus operan­di of Con­gress, which reli­ably sets high­er ceil­ings for mil­i­tary spend­ing than for domes­tic. But by teth­er­ing pro­gres­sive pro­grams to war spend­ing, this plan aban­dons the moral pri­or­i­ty to oppose U.S. impe­r­i­al ambi­tions. Pro­gres­sives can­not build domes­tic gains on the backs of peo­ple in the Glob­al South. No amount of domes­tic spend­ing could jus­ti­fy the size of the Pen­ta­gon, the largest mil­i­tary empire human­i­ty has ever seen.

Pro­gres­sives are eager to find fund­ing for bold, pop­u­lar pro­grams like a Green New Deal and Medicare for All, and are chaf­ing at the con­straints of the Bud­get Con­trol Act of 2011, a com­pro­mise by the Oba­ma admin­is­tra­tion: Repub­li­cans agreed to raise the debt ceil­ing in exchange for lim­its on dis­cre­tionary defense and non-defense spend­ing (which, in prac­tice, has led to far more con­straints on the lat­ter). Lind­say Koshgar­i­an, pro­gram direc­tor for the Insti­tute for Pol­i­cy Stud­ies’ Nation­al Pri­or­i­ties Project, a bud­get-focused non­prof­it, puts it this way, Every cou­ple of years [the act has] meant a deal with more Pen­ta­gon fund­ing and a lit­tle more fund­ing for every­thing else.”

The Con­gres­sion­al Pro­gres­sive Cau­cus chairs are pit­ting them­selves against cen­trist lead­ers in their own par­ty, includ­ing Bud­get Com­mit­tee Chair Rep. John Yarmuth (D‑Ky.), who ral­lied Democ­rats behind a bud­getary plan that would increase dis­cre­tionary defense spend­ing caps to $664 bil­lion in 2020 and non-defense spend­ing to $631 bil­lion. The split came to a head April 9, in an episode the Wash­ing­ton Post called a lib­er­al revolt” by House pro­gres­sives, when Jaya­pal and Pocan intro­duced an amend­ment to increase the domes­tic cap by $33 bil­lion to bring it in line with the mil­i­tary cap. Here’s a real oppor­tu­ni­ty to tell peo­ple we are invest­ing in their future and not in a Pen­ta­gon,” Jaya­pal said.

But Demo­c­ra­t­ic lead­ers reject­ed the amend­ment on the grounds that it wasn’t fis­cal­ly pru­dent, and ulti­mate­ly can­celed the vote.

To be fair, dol­lar-for-dol­lar par­i­ty between domes­tic and mil­i­tary spend­ing wasn’t every pro­gres­sive Con­gress member’s first choice. Dur­ing the ini­tial House Bud­get Com­mit­tee hear­ings on Yarmuth’s pro­pos­al, Rep. Ro Khan­na (Calif.) put for­ward an amend­ment to freeze defense spend­ing at 2019 lev­els, which gained the sup­port of six oth­er Democ­rats, but was vot­ed down. Reps. Jaya­pal, Khan­na and Ilhan Omar (Minn.) then vot­ed against the Yarmuth plan, the only three House Democ­rats to do so. This is a key philo­soph­i­cal moment for our par­ty,” said Khan­na. We can­not be against end­less wars and then fund those wars.”

But even if the Pen­ta­gon bud­get were frozen, it still con­sti­tutes, by far, the biggest mil­i­tary bud­get of any nation in the world—rough­ly the size of the next sev­en com­bined. Mil­i­tary spend­ing has increased for four years straight, climb­ing from $586 bil­lion in 2015 to $716 bil­lion in 2019 (an infla­tion-adjust­ed increase of $85 bil­lion, or 13%). The mon­ey funds a glob­al empire, with 800 mil­i­tary bases, active and reserve troops sta­tioned in at least 172 coun­tries and ter­ri­to­ries, and U.S. com­man­dos deployed in 75% of the world’s coun­tries. Accord­ing to one esti­mate, the 2003 U.S. inva­sion of Iraq result­ed in the death of 1 mil­lion Iraqi peo­ple. Since 2014, the U.S.-led mil­i­tary coali­tion against ISIS has killed up to 12,000 civil­ians in Iraq and Syr­ia. U.S. mil­i­tary bases, for their part, erode nations’ self-deter­mi­na­tion, are asso­ci­at­ed with envi­ron­men­tal harm and sex­u­al vio­lence, and fuel proxy wars, which can be ruthless.

And yet, at a time when aspi­ra­tional, social­ist-lean­ing pro­grams are tak­ing the nation­al stage, left demands to reduce the U.S. mil­i­tary foot­print have nowhere near the same momen­tum. This puts us in dan­ger of repeat­ing a long his­to­ry of lib­er­al and left chau­vin­ism — a belief in the supe­ri­or­i­ty of one’s com­pa­tri­ots that enables pro­gres­sive poli­cies at home and bru­tal wars abroad to go hand in hand.

The last sig­nif­i­cant out­burst of pro­gres­sive domes­tic reform — Lyn­don Johnson’s war on pover­ty,” begin­ning in 1964 — saw the cre­ation of Medicare, Med­ic­aid, food stamps and the Nation­al Endow­ment for the Human­i­ties, with aspi­ra­tions for what John­son called The Great Soci­ety.” From 1965 to 1968, the U.S. bud­get­ed $2.64 bil­lion in new local wel­fare pro­grams — a 25% increase over 1962 lev­els. The U.S. also bud­get­ed an increase of 30% for the Defense Depart­ment bud­get, to $76.5 billion. 

Those addi­tion­al bil­lions financed mil­i­tary expan­sion — and mass atroc­i­ty. As John­son declared war on pover­ty, he also green­lit tens of thou­sands more U.S. troops into Viet­nam. With the Gulf of Tonkin Res­o­lu­tion, John­son went all in on a war that between 1965 and 1974 would leave an esti­mat­ed 1.7 mil­lion Viet­namese dead.

Accord­ing to Mar­garet Rung, pro­fes­sor of his­to­ry at Roo­sevelt Uni­ver­si­ty (and board pres­i­dent of In These Times), John­son want­ed to take the Great Soci­ety and export it to the rest of the world, espe­cial­ly parts of the world that might turn to Com­mu­nism. In [Johnson’s] mind, they were all part of the same project.” In a 1965 speech, John­son laid out plans for eco­nom­ic devel­op­ment in Viet­nam, includ­ing a Mekong Riv­er Delta Project, inspired by the Ten­nessee Val­ley Author­i­ty. Three years lat­er, that delta would be the site of the U.S. mil­i­tary onslaught Oper­a­tion Speedy Express,” which took the lives of more than 10,000 Viet­namese peo­ple and gave U.S. Major Gen­er­al Julian Ewell the epi­thet, Butch­er of the Delta.”

Sim­i­lar­ly, Pierre Laroque, con­sid­ered the father of social secu­ri­ty” in France in the after­math of World War II, argued for a uni­ver­sal wel­fare state” that incor­po­rat­ed French colonies, from Alge­ria to Sene­gal, pro­vid­ing ide­o­log­i­cal fod­der for ongo­ing vio­lent col­o­niza­tion. Just over a decade lat­er, Social­ist Prime Min­is­ter Guy Mol­let would bring a wave of pro­gres­sive domes­tic reform to France at the same time that he esca­lat­ed the war to crush Algeria’s strug­gle for inde­pen­dence, deploy­ing 200,000 more troops who engaged in sys­tem­at­ic torture.

Today, the lib­er­al rul­ing class still dis­plays chau­vin­ist pri­or­i­ties. Sen. Eliz­a­beth War­ren (D‑Mass), a 2020 pres­i­den­tial hope­ful, show­cased them on Wednes­day when she tweet­ed, Cli­mate change is real, it’s wors­en­ing by the day, and it’s under­min­ing our mil­i­tary readiness.”

Domes­tic and mil­i­tary spend­ing caps remain unre­solved in ongo­ing bud­get nego­ti­a­tions. The Con­gres­sion­al Pro­gres­sive Cau­cus has yet to release its annu­al People’s Bud­get, where it has the oppor­tu­ni­ty to draw a hard line against mil­i­tary spend­ing. Sup­port for a pro­gram like Medicare for All should stem from the prin­ci­ple of sol­i­dar­i­ty — that an injury to one is an injury to all. The same sol­i­dar­i­ty should be extend­ed to the lives of the tens of thou­sands of Yemeni peo­ple dying in a U.S.-backed war.

We need to oppose war spend­ing with the same gus­to we push to expand pub­lic goods, on the grounds that lives beyond U.S. bor­ders mat­ter just as much as those with­in. By fail­ing to root domes­tic demands in anti-impe­ri­al­ist prin­ci­ples, we risk repeat­ing the hor­rors of the past — and present.

Sarah Lazare is web edi­tor at In These Times. She comes from a back­ground in inde­pen­dent jour­nal­ism for pub­li­ca­tions includ­ing The Inter­cept, The Nation, and Tom Dis­patch. She tweets at @sarahlazare.

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