Speaking with antiwar activists last week, Representatives Barbara Lee (D-CA) and Mark Pocan (D-WI) were candid about the challenges in building congressional support for defunding the Pentagon. Lee and Pocan, cochairs of the new Defense Spending Reduction Caucus, led last year’s effort to boost social spending through a 10 percent reduction to the military budget. That amendment, introduced by Pocan, failed (93-324), as did the mirroring legislation introduced by Senator Bernie Sanders (23-77).
Zero Republicans supported the measure. Because the party appears set to do the same with a similar measure this year, most of the supporting votes needed this year must come from Democrats who cast opposing votes last year.
Even with favorable additions to this Congress like Rep. Jamaal Bowman (D-NY), as well as favorable subtractions, like the incumbent Bowman felled in the 2020 primaries, Eliot Engel, the question remains how to get members of Congress to vote for an amendment they wouldn’t otherwise vote for.
Borrowing from the tactics of military contractors may inform the solution.
Although Congress continues to deny the public survival checks, more than one-fifth of House Democrats accepted at least $48,000 in donations from military contractors over the past two years. These contractors are paying many Congress members the monthly equivalent of $2,000 survival checks — and, in many cases, much more.
Only 13 percent of Congress members who are receiving this much in military contractor donations voted for Pocan’s amendment to scale back defense spending. Conversely, among representatives in the bottom quintile for weapons manufacturer contributions, 63 percent supported Pocan’s amendment. Without these contributions, it is likely that more members of Congress would align their votes with public opinion, which trends toward defunding the Pentagon.
While nearly 70 percent of surveyed Democratic voters supported the terms of Pocan’s amendment, less than 40 percent of Democratic members ended up supporting the legislation. Not only were they more reactionary than their voter base, but they were also more conservative than Republican voters: 50 percent of Republican survey respondents supported the measure.
For military contractors, the objective isn’t necessarily to win the American people over to support them. It’s to win votes. For many in Congress, Pentagon budget votes are conduits to cash. The calculation is simple: keep ignoring public opinion, keep getting paid. This will continue until an antiwar movement is large enough to punish recalcitrant elected officials who keep forking over massive amounts of cash to these contractors.
Liquidating a portion of the bloated Pentagon budget, as Lee and Pocan have argued for, and using the money to pay for $2,000 survival checks might be the solution. Given the widespread need and broad popularity of economic relief payments, this appeals to the urgent material interests of the working class in a way that moral arguments to defund the Pentagon or dismantle American empire cannot.
This would closely resemble the amendment offered last year, which sought to fund social projects by diverting a portion of the Pentagon to a Treasury Department grant program. The only procedural difference here is that the Treasury would use these funds to distribute additional Economic Impact Payments.
Defunding the Pentagon by $304 billion would be equal to a one-month down payment on the Monthly Economic Crisis Support Act, introduced in May by then senator Kamala Harris and cosponsored by Senator Sanders that would provide recurring $2,000 monthly checks to 152 million people.
We will find out for sure when President Biden releases his budget request for the Pentagon on May 3, but we can assume that that budget will be 3-5 percent higher than any Trump-era request. Incentivizing public interest in military spending by linking it to direct material interests gives us the best chance to disrupt what Congress has done for the last sixty consecutive years: pass a Pentagon budget that further perpetuates inequality and empire.