Is Money for Nukes More Important Than Paid Family Leave? Congress Thinks So.

With Biden’s Build Back Better bill sidelined, the Senate just approved a gigantic military budget—including funds for “useable” nukes. That’s unconscionable.

Danny Sjursen

(Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

On December 15, the U.S. Senate passed a gargantuan, single-year, $768 billion defense bill on an 88-11 vote. The passage clears the way for President Biden’s signature, after the bill moved through the U.S. House with a landslide 363-70 vote earlier in the month. The agreement reaffirms that the only truly bipartisan issue in Washington is militarism. 

The lopsided vote for the military budget, which includes even more funds for America’s nuclear arsenal, stands in stark contrast to President Biden’s Build Back Better bill, which includes some important people-centric programs, but is currently languishing in Congress, with news reports claiming the bill will be shelved” for the foreseeable future. 

Since 9/11, questioning any aspect of America’s military machine has become associated with paltry patriotism and lack of support” for U.S. troops. Nevertheless, the tide is slowly turning, as even military members and veterans — including myself — begin to question the United States government’s wars and spending priorities. 

As a former career soldier and retired two-war combat vet, I could personally benefit from the 2.7 percent pay raise for service-members that’s included in the latest defense bill. Still, soldiers are first and foremost citizens of this nation, as well as sons, daughters and spouses of families that increasingly struggle to make ends meet. 

In other words, we are the folks who stand to gain from the social programs in Biden’s bill — including paid family leave—that Republicans and a number of moderate” Democrats are now opposing. America is the only major wealthy country that provides zero weeks of paid benefits to new parents, leaving them at the mercy of state governments or often unsympathetic private employers. Working people, including soldiers and vets, deserve time off to be with their new families. 

So let’s briefly contrast — conceptually and numerically — two individual components of these bills. 

The National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) continues funding for a frankly Strangelovian multi-decade $1.7 trillion modernization” program for America’s already-inflated nuclear arsenal (the U.S. nuclear stockpile stands at 13 times larger than China’s). Over the next decade, the United States is projected to spend $494 billion on its nuclear forces — some $50 billion a year. While you might expect this nuke-bonanza to appall Democrats, the Biden administration’s 2022 budget fully funds every element of Trump’s nuclear weapons policies.

By way of contrast, the Build Back Better bill allots about $205 billion to cover four weeks of paid family leave—cut down from a proposed 12 weeks — but that amount is funded across ten years. The annual cost to taxpayers, then, is just over $20 billion. On the other hand, the latest House defense bill includes $27.8 billion just for the Department of Energy’s nuclear weapons programs — which few Americans know are separate from the Pentagon’s armaments. 

So, total annual nuke-spending for fiscal year 2022 is about 2.5 times higher than the family leave program (that wouldn’t even kick-in until 2024). What’s more, conservative Democrats such as Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.V.) are opposing even this modest family leave program, but have no issue voting for the bloated defense bill. 

There is something grotesque about an American political process and culture in which our supposed representatives” barely flinch at funding a nuclear modernization program — including plenty of cash for what some label more useable” low-yield nukes — yet simultaneously quibble over far cheaper domestic spending items like the paid family leave program.

This dynamic further illustrates that America’s ballooning national security budget hardly secures the citizenry, or truly supports the troops. Instead, certain corporate war-profiteering companies rake in the cash — risking further unwinnable combat missions for our modestly paid young soldiers, who still don’t benefit from paid leave. 

Apparently, the only things many members of Congress want to build back better are distinctly unusable and unnecessary mass murder devices. Yet ask any working family and they’ll tell you clear as day — what is useable, and necessary, is some paid leave to spend with loved ones.

Danny Sjursen is a retired US Army officer, senior fellow at the Center for International Policy (CIP), contributing editor at Anti​war​.com, and director of the Eisenhower Media Network (EMN). His work has appeared in the NY Times, LA Times, The Nation, The Hill, Salon, The American Conservative, Mother Jones, and Tom Dispatch, among other publications. He served combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan and taught history at West Point. He is the author of a memoir and critical analysis of the Iraq War, Ghostriders of Baghdad: Soldiers, Civilians, and the Myth of the Surge and Patriotic Dissent: America in the Age of Endless War. He co-hosts the podcast Fortress on a Hill.” Follow him on Twitter @SkepticalVet and visit his website.

Get 10 issues for $19.95

Subscribe to the print magazine.