With all the debt limit talk, few eye Pentagon cuts
Three of the Pentagon's most expensive weapons are lined up in Taiwan after arriving there as part of the U.S. plan to intimidate China into staying away from what is rightfully Chinese territory. The first pile is anti-ship missiles, the second is a flatbed of air to air missiles and behind them is the F-16 fighter jet which travels at several times the speed of sound. | Efrem Lukatsky/AP

WASHINGTON—In all the talk about cutting spending in return for raising the U.S. debt limit, there seems to be a sacred cow: The Pentagon.

A survey of websites of groups normally expected to advocate for cutting military spending—including US Labor Against War and Racism, the United Electrical Workers, and the International Longshore and Warehouse Union—discloses current silence, with few exceptions.

Three are a congressional electronic petition posted by Win Without War, the platform of the Poor People’s Campaign, which has been introduced in Congress, and a mention by Sen. Bernie Sanders, Ind-Vt., as part of his overall criticism of all the planned slashes.

The fourth was a campaign for Pentagon budget cuts by CPUSA members marching in Detroit’s May Day parade.

And in a response to a questioner seven years ago on the party website, Scott Hiley used words that could apply to today’s crisis, too.

“War is a primary tool of imperialism: The competition for access to resources, domination of markets, and maintenance of political regimes who will keep profits flowing,” Hiley wrote. “Moreover, war gives a direct financial benefit to shareholders of defense contractors. War is a great game for the ruling class because we’re the ones who pay its terrible costs.”

But now a small union, the National Association of Government Employees, has taken a direct step to stop the Republicans’ debt ceiling/budget cut steamroller.

NAGE asked U.S. District Judge Richard Stearns in Massachusetts to issue an injunction saying, in essence, the debt ceiling law is unconstitutional. So Democratic President Joe Biden and Treasury Secretary Janet Yellin can’t enforce it – and the government can and should keep going and pay its bills. Stearns set a June 6 hearing date on the injunction and called for briefs by the end of May.

Other than those developments above, nada.

The Pentagon, shown here, seems non-negotiable with few questioning its nearly $1 trillion annual budget. | Patrick Semansky/AP

That may reflect reality. After all, why tilt at windmills? The House’s MAGA Republicans, who hold the whip hand in this mess—though they’re not part of the negotiations between Democratic President Joe Biden and congressional leaders—are dead set against cutting military money. Instead, they demand more of it and cut everything else.

Seek a way around the MAGA caucus

Progressives seek a way to evade and avoid the right-wing MAGA Freedom Caucus, whose puppet, House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., mandated a debt limit hike-spending cuts bill that exempts military money. Otherwise, the MAGAites will tank the country’s economy by defeating the debt limit increase.

And the caucus has 30-40 votes, enough to defeat anything—other than their plot to hold the country and the economy hostage to their agenda—the overall House Republican majority desires.

If the Freedom Caucus gets its way, the federal budget would consist of, to paraphrase a Vietnam era phrase, “Guns, not butter.” In other words, cut every domestic program possible, from Social Security to job safety to food stamps to Medicaid to veterans health care.

That would let kids starve and seniors go without Social Security checks, progressives reply.

That runs counter to history, and the U.S. Constitution. Its preamble declares the government exists “to establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense (and) promote the general welfare.”

The MAGAites’ reply? “Oh, never mind.” Or, maybe to the losers, Marie Antoinette’s famous line about hungry, rebelling Parisians: “Let them eat cake.”

That leaves the groups, even more than Sanders, out in a lonely campaign against subsidizing the military-industrial complex and the corporate capitalists who benefit from war dollars. Their progressive colleagues, on and off Capitol Hill, instead focus on ways to avoid the debt limit trap altogether—even if it means swallowing bad medicine in spending cuts.

The Poor People’s Campaign, headed by the Revs. William Barber II and Liz Theoharis, isn’t formally lobbying for war spending cuts. But in their speeches and sermons both often advocate war spending slashes, with the money shifted to domestic programs, not to overall budget cuts.

Their platform, formally introduced in Congress by Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Calif., as House Resolution 438, demands $350 billion in Pentagon cuts—while Democratic President Joe Biden seeks a multibillion-dollar military money increase, to almost $900 billion total.

“#COVID19 has exposed a pandemic of poverty that was already widespread and accepted in this nation. When covid-era social welfare systems like additional food assistance and SNAP benefits are rolled back, we will be impacted the most,” the Poor People’s Campaign tweeted.

Sanders devotes mention to the military budget while assembling a coalition of senators to push Biden to adopt an alternative to the domestic cuts: Invoking the “full faith and credit of the United States shall not be questioned” clause of the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution to override the debt limit before the drop-dead deadline of June 1.

“Republicans in D.C. are pushing for a massive increase in the $858 billion Pentagon budget, a $1.8 trillion tax break to people who inherit over $1 billion & a $3.5 trillion extension of Trump’s tax breaks. Oh, did they tell you how very, very concerned they are about the deficit?” he sarcastically tweeted.

Win Without War was more specific. It wants readers to email lawmakers, demanding a military budget cut.

Never passed an audit

“The Pentagon, which has never passed an audit, continues to get a budget windfall,” says Sara Haaghdoosti, its executive director. “More F-35s aren’t going to solve climate change or make sure families can afford basic supplies like eggs.

“We urge lawmakers…to stick up for their constituents and ensure their non-military needs don’t come at the expense of weapons contractor-desired programs. The Lockheed and Raytheon shareholders will be OK. U.S. communities need less Pentagon spending and more non-military investments now.”

Win Without War’s letter to lawmakers, which it posted online for people to send, reads: “A world with more weapons and war, while critical programs that serve veterans, help people access healthcare, and (which) pay teachers are cut, doesn’t sound very balanced to me.”

NAGE wants to make all the lobbying unneeded, by dumping the debt limit, now, through a federal court injunction. Its argument is somewhat convoluted but makes sense.

The union says “the Debt Limit Statute is in violation of the principle of the separation of powers, as set out in…the Constitution, because it necessarily confers on the defendant president the unchecked discretion to cancel or curtail the operations of government approved by Congress without the approval of Congress.

“NAGE, therefore, seeks an order to declare the Debt Limit Statute is presently unconstitutional and of no force,” the union says.

It “seeks to enjoin defendants”—Biden and Yellen—“from refusing to borrow to meet the operations of government approved by Congress, and the debts and obligations that also must be paid pursuant to the 14th Amendment,” such as Social Security, government workers’ pay and retirees’ pensions “until such time as [the law] is revised to ensure the constitutionally mandated role of Congress in determining what operations of government may be canceled or curtailed and to bar layoffs or furloughs of any federal employees” until then.

In other words, put the ball entirely in Congress’s court, now, to decide who and what to cut—and pay all the bills until it does “instead of leaving it to the president to do so.”

“NAGE on behalf of itself and its members seeks to enjoin Yellen from complying with the borrowing limit…and taking any additional actions beyond the extraordinary measures already taken to suspend investments in NAGE members’ Thrift Savings Plan Funds that would result in any layoffs, furloughs, loss of employment, or any loss of benefits,” the union demands.

Other than the few calls to cut the military budget, there’s social media and website silence from the military’s usual critics: The Friends Committee on National Legislation, the United Electrical Workers, the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, and so on.

The Congressional Progressive Caucus and members of “The Squad” concentrated on the Trump-Republican tax cuts and benefits for corporations and the rich—tax cuts McCarthy has said must be preserved. Biden has already yielded on the tax hikes his budget proposed.

Trying to fool you

“Republicans are trying to fool you into thinking that they genuinely care about spending,” first-year Rep. Summer Lee, D-Pa., a Squad member, told her colleagues in a floor speech.

Pentagon cannons in use on the battlefield in Ukraine. | AP

“They hurt everyone with their giveaways to the price gougers that fund their campaigns, and then they turn around and blame Black folks, brown folks, poor folks, and immigrants for the mess they created. They claim that if we don’t strip away food from the struggling, subsistence from seniors, and earned benefits from the elderly to give billionaires the benefits of a tax break, you and your family will pay the price.”

Other usual Pentagon critics, along with the Economic Policy Institute, the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, and other economic progressives, decry the  Republicans’ hostage-taking and their bottom-line demand of no military money cuts.

They then produce doom-and-gloom forecasts on how big the domestic program slashes will be if the U.S. blows through its debt limit on June 1. They advocate various “silver bullet” solutions.

One, being talked about both inside Congress—by Sanders—and outside, is to invoke the 14th Amendment’s “full faith and credit” clause, which says “the national debt shall not be questioned.”

“Prepare to exercise your authority” under that clause to “allow the U.S. to pay its bills on time, without delay, preventing a global economic catastrophe,” Sanders and ten other progressive senators urged the president.

Josh Bivens and Samantha Saunders of the Economic Policy Institute resurrect Bivens’s decade-old idea of minting a trillion-dollar platinum coin to thus raise the debt limit by that sum. They accuse Republicans of “weaponizing the debt limit.”

“If the X-date comes and nothing is done except the federal government fails to fulfill its spending obligations, economic calamity will ensue,” Saunders and Bivens add. “People who depend on programs like Social Security and food stamps will suffer, and the spillover effects on the larger economy would certainly cause a recession—and a truly horrible one if the stalemate lasted for any significant amount of time.”

Jonathan Zasloff of the Center for American Progress, in a story before the union sued to declare the debt limit law unconstitutional, said there’s an added benefit for an injunction. By tossing the whole law, the Republicans’ whole hostage-taking plot can’t be repeated, ever.

“If a court declares the ceiling unconstitutional, that’s a different story. If anything, that would increase certainty and thus stability. With a favorable ruling, markets would know that Republican hostage-taking is over,” Zasloff concluded.

Janice Rothstein contributed material for this story.

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Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Award-winning journalist Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of the union news service Press Associates Inc. (PAI). Known for his reporting skills, sharp wit, and voluminous knowledge of history, Mark is a compassionate interviewer but tough when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners.