Between 1980 and 1985, President Ronald Reagan presided over the biggest peacetime defense buildup in US history. This expansion helped the United States develop stealth technology, precision weaponry, counter-air systems, new aircraft, and many other defense expenditures to demonstrate that it was the unequivocal global superpower.
Some historians like to argue that this led to the fall of the Soviet Union and a resolution to the Cold War standoff between the two countries. Regardless, many agree that this military scale-up, coupled with the First Gulf War and 9/11, helped cement the military as a hallmark of American identity alongside baseball, apple pie, and bad reality television.
In the aftermath of the Vietnam War, American troop morale was at its nadir along with the civilian outlook on the armed forces, which some military officials referred to as a “hollow force.” People were beginning to recognize that Vietnam was a disaster, and racial tension continued to ravage military branches (despite integration in the armed forces happening right before the Korean War).
Reagan decided the US needed to assert its hegemony to show the world they were superior to the Soviets. Since his presidency, the United States has always had a massive military budget—it’s more than the next ten highest spenders on defense combined—a fact largely unaddressed since the Cold War. What makes matters worse is that military spending contributes significantly to an increasing deficit.
For the most part, the country’s defense budget isn’t questioned or deliberated much. However, a resolution recently introduced by Representatives Barbara Lee (D-CA), Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), and Pramila Jayapal (D-WA) takes an aggressive stand, “Expressing the sense of the House of Representatives regarding wasteful Pentagon spending and supporting cuts to the bloated defense budget.”
The resolution does two principle things: first, it resolves to reduce defense waste, reduce or eliminate bad oversight from the Department of Defense, and increase transparency. Second, it proposes cutting $350 billion from the Pentagon’s budget and investing that money into social and domestic programs. The congresswomen argue the money can go much further there than it does in defense.
Currently the amount spent on domestic programs pales in comparison to the military budget—only about one third of discretionary spending is used to address poverty and inequality, public education, housing, energy, and diplomacy, to name a few areas.
Repurposing some of the military money could go a long way, they say, and solve some endemic issues in the US. For instance, to house a significant portion of Americans who are homeless costs a comparative fraction of the proposed military cuts. Similarly, the cost to repair and replace the water system in Flint, Michigan, would be a drop in the bucket.
The resolution cites the US’s “overreliance on military action and insufficient use of diplomatic and other nonmilitary tools.” After World War II, the United States and the Soviet Union gradually became afraid of one another. This tension continued for almost forty years, and coupled with the fallout of Vietnam, justified Reagan’s inflation of the military budget.
Funding given to the military might seem like it would be well documented and properly appropriated. However, the resolution cites the Pentagon’s high level of waste and fraud—especially problematic since the military budget accounts for over half of all discretionary spending. A hefty budget (the US has spent over $6 trillion on military operations since 9/11) makes it easy for misuse, however some misappropriation instances the resolution mentions are relatively easy to make transparent or rectify. For instance, the Pentagon spent $4.6 million on crab and lobster for parties last fiscal year.
It’s important to note that this is a simple House resolution—not a bill—whose purpose is to state an opinion that members of the legislative body feel is important to emphasize. Interestingly, it comes at a time when concerns about police militarization are becoming more and more heightened.
In protests over the police murder of George Floyd, law enforcement has used military-grade weaponry against civilians. After 9/11 the Bush administration scaled up the presence of such weaponry in municipalities for fear of another terrorist attack on American soil. The Obama administration later banned the practice of repurposing military tactical gear and equipment for police in the aftermath of what appeared like an “occupying force” in Ferguson, Missouri, following riots over the police killing of Michael Brown. Donald Trump, playing off of xenophobic, racist, and police-state minded policies, brought the equipment back and offered more to communities.
The recent protests have reignited the idea that policing need not be comparable to fighting wars. Akin to the “defund the police” movement, the resolution outlines how federal resources should be spent in better and more compassionate ways.
While it’s unlikely that this resolution will initiate much serious consideration by Congress, it makes sense to reassess where military funding goes and whether it’s used for the best purposes. A beefy military is a hard thing to strip away from the collective American psyche, but it’s still worth opening the dialogue.