Last week, after months of tortured talks and compromises from Democrats to pass legislation that their extremist colleague and West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin would approve, Manchin still blew up all hopes for Congress to meaningfully address the climate crisis. Meanwhile, President Biden’s budget priorities continue to focus on throwing good money after bad into the military, even exceeding the amounts that the Pentagon requested. From 2022 to 2023, as Lindsay Koshgarian has pointed out, the amount of money added to the military budget could cover most of the cost of Biden’s Build Back Better package. In this installment of The Marc Steiner Show, Marc speaks with Koshgarian about Democrats’ self-destructive addiction to pumping cash into the military-industrial complex while failing to address the issues that matter most to voters.
Lindsay Koshgarian is the Program Director of the National Priorities Project, a project of the Institute for Policy Studies, where she analyzes the federal budget process and politics, military spending, and specifically how federal budget choices for different spending priorities and taxation interact.
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Pre-Production/Studio: Dwayne Gladden
Post-Production: Stephen Frank
Marc Steiner: Welcome to The Marc Steiner Show here on The Real News. I’m Marc Steiner, and it’s great to have you all with us again. And we all know that West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin killed the Build Back Better bill despite the fact that he represents one of the most desperately poor states in the country. And on top of that, it appears that the almost $1 trillion defense package will be passed, one where Congress added more than even the defense department asked for. On top of that, Congress killed the $2 trillion bill that have gone to fight climate change, expand healthcare, and increase our social safety net. One might think our priorities are a bit skewed.
So to look at that and examine alternatives and see what we can do to change things, we’re about to have a conversation with Lindsay Koshgarian, who is the program director for the National Priorities Project, which oversees nationalpriorities.org. She spends her time bringing a serious analysis of the federal budget process, the politics that surrounds it, military spending, and dissects the intricacies of the federal budget. And this is all part of the Institute for Policy Studies. And Lindsay, welcome back. Good to have you with us.
Lindsay Koshgarian: Thanks for having me, Marc.
Marc Steiner: So it is complex. I mean, even where to begin this. The fact that social spending of any kind, whether it was the Build Back Better which was less money, or the larger $1 trillion package they wanted to pass in the beginning, was destroyed by Manchin and others. But then we see that the military budget itself was not only huge, but is larger than expected. Talk a bit about the dynamic as you understand that.
Lindsay Koshgarian: Yes. What we’ve seen, it’s really been pretty dramatic over the last six to seven months. First of all, we know that Senator Manchin opposed and was the death knell for the Build Back Better package, based on his feeling that it cost too much. But we also know that we’ve seen Senator Manchin year in and year out vote for these tremendous defense military spending bills. He’s always fine with any amount of money for The Pentagon. And he’s very stingy when it comes to all of these other things. The Build Back Better package had childcare, it had healthcare, it had elder care, it had clean energy spending. All of these things that we desperately need and that other countries are somehow managing to put out money for.
And so this is a pattern that, it’s not new, but over the last sort of six, seven months, it was December when Senator Manchin announced his opposition to the Build Back Better bill. And since then, we haven’t seen any serious progress on it. But also since then we’ve seen multiple phases of adding more money to The Pentagon budget. We’ve seen Congress pass a fiscal year 2022 budget that was higher than fiscal year 2021, which was the first time in our history on record that we have ended a war, the war in Afghanistan, and then spent more money on The Pentagon. The first time that’s happened. So first that happened.
Marc Steiner: That’s interesting, the first time that [inaudible].
Lindsay Koshgarian: And President Biden came out with his request for fiscal year 2023 asking for even more for The Pentagon. Adding tens of billions of dollars each time. Biden comes out with his request, then just in the past few weeks, the Senate and House Armed Services Committees have each gone through their process for the military budget. And they’re adding tens of billions of dollars more. The Senate added $45 billion and the House added $7 billion.
They just keep throwing more money at The Pentagon. And the Biden budget is what The Pentagon itself actually asked for. This is what Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin says is enough money to run The Pentagon. Now granted, a lot of experts, myself included, feel that it is actually far too much to run The Pentagon. And if secretary Austin thinks it’s enough, that ought to be enough. He’s the expert. He should have a say in that.
And the fact that Congress is adding tens of billions of dollars on top of that, it just goes to speak to how much in the pocket of the military contractors they are, how much they’re seeing this budget as a jobs program and a pork opportunity rather than actual national security. They just keep adding in more and more money on top of it. And we’re actually getting to the point where there’s so much money being added to The Pentagon budget over the last six months that we’ve got a significant chunk of what it would have cost for the first year of Build Back Better already.
Marc Steiner: Let’s look at some of the numbers that you’re talking about here, to really understand it better. The Build Back Better, if I remember correctly from what you wrote about, was $170 billion, and there was another package that was there earlier that was killed that included that and other things that was like $2 trillion. Everything from healthcare to the environment to other issues that face America, this overall safety net, at $2.2 trillion. Talk a bit about what happened to that budget. I mean, where it was with the military budget and where it is now. And most importantly I’m interested in your analysis of why it is not needed.
Lindsay Koshgarian: Why the military spending is not needed?
Marc Steiner: Yeah. How is it overblown? Why is it not needed?
Lindsay Koshgarian: First of all, when we talk about Build Back Better, a lot of the numbers that floated around in media like $2 trillion, or the progressives were calling for over $6 trillion at the beginning. That’s over 10 years. And we usually talk about the military budget in terms of one year. So if you’re talking about two trillion over 10 years, that’s actually about $200 billion per year.
Marc Steiner: That’s a really important point that always gets overlooked. Yes.
Lindsay Koshgarian: It’s not apples to apples, we’ve got to do apples to apples here. Build Back Better was going to be $200 billion, or by the time it got whittled down right before Manchin killed it, it was about $170 billion a year. The Pentagon budget, on the other hand, had been about $750 billion a year at that point. So it’s more than four times as much on an annual basis. It’s a huge difference. The Pentagon budget is way more than what Build Back Better was going to cost, even before Manchin said no to it. That’s the one thing, is we have to do apples to apples.
But the reason we don’t need a $750 billion Pentagon budget, or now we’re heading towards what looks more like an $850 or even more billion dollar Pentagon budget. The reason we don’t need all of that is because of all the stuff it’s paying for. Number one, every year about half, frequently more than half, of the entire Pentagon budget goes to for-profit military contractors. It’s a huge industry.
Marc Steiner: Let me stop you for one second, what do you mean by… You said more than half the budget goes to private military contractors?
Lindsay Koshgarian: That’s right.
Marc Steiner: Describe what that means. I mean, because we see the hardware that they got in terms of more planes and more ships, even ones they didn’t ask for are now in the budget. So how is it that the contractors get more? What does that mean?
Lindsay Koshgarian: Well, so their contractors include weapons contractors, and like you said, Congress is giving them planes they didn’t ask for, ships they didn’t ask for, all of that money essentially goes to contractors. When they’re buying weapons, that money goes to contractors. Maintaining weapons, that money goes to contractors.
Marc Steiner: Oh, okay. I just want to be clear. So when you’re saying contractors, you’re not talking about the men and women who are in the field as private military contractors. You are talking about military contractors, the defense industry and what they make.
Lindsay Koshgarian: The defense industry at large, yes.
Marc Steiner: Okay. I just want to be clear.
Lindsay Koshgarian: It also includes everything. I mean, anything and everything is fair game. There’s a huge industry built around this. There are catering contractors, and IT contractors, and anything that could be contracted out is. And we have studies that have done the general accounting office, the GAO, and some studies from the Project on Government Oversight have shown that a lot of those contracts are costing more because they’re contracts than if the same things were done by government workers. So we have that.
There’s this huge profit motive. And there’s a huge profit center there for the contractors to always push The Pentagon budget higher, because almost anything, they’re going to get a piece of. The one exception to that really is the troops’ pay. That’s something that obviously contractors don’t get a piece of, and that is going up, but it does not account for the vast majority of this. It’s about one fifth of the total budget. So that’s not what’s driving the money going up and up.
The contractor is the number one thing. There are a couple of other things. One is the fact that we have about 750 military installations all around the world. No other country has more than 20. So it’s our huge military footprint everywhere, the fact that our military is trying to be everywhere all the time, ready for anything, no other military is doing that. And more often than not, it just gets us dragged into wars that we have no business being in, the 9/11 wars in Iraq and Afghanistan being the number one example.
And those were made easier by the fact that there were military bases in Germany that were being used as bases to run missions in the Middle East. And that is still the case. So all of that giant military footprint, essentially anytime the US military sets down someplace, we never leave. We’re still in Germany. We’re still in South Korea. We’re still in Italy. We’ve been there since World War II. It’s just a huge, huge enterprise. And if the goal continues to be that the US military has to be everywhere in the world all the time, the budget will never be big enough.
Marc Steiner: One of the things I was thinking about as I was reading your report, and I’ve read all the stuff you’ve written before as well, and what you were just saying now. I’m really curious about your thoughts, as you put these ideas in the public, how you begin to explain it and how a change is possible. When you look at the progressive caucus, I mean, they came up with a plan that would take $100 billion off of that massive budget, which is in some sense is almost like a large drop in a bucket, the $100 billion.
How would you begin to discuss with the American people what the alternative would be? And I say that on two levels, one, how you get to that, the power of the military contractors, but also there’s another reality in this that I think we forget sometimes which makes it even more difficult. From what I’ve read before – And maybe I’m wrong about this, you can correct me if I’m wrong – That the military defense industry, the private industry itself employs 3.5 million people. That’s a lot of people making a lot of money. It’s a very complex issue. How do you begin to put your hands around that for the public to understand what can be the alternative?
Lindsay Koshgarian: There’s a couple things there. One, first of all, we have polling that shows that the majority of people in this country would support taking money away from The Pentagon and putting it into other things. People know we need infrastructure. People know we need healthcare. People know that we haven’t invested in these things, in education, in childcare and all of those things. And a strong majority of folks in this country support taking some money from The Pentagon and putting it into some of those other things.
There’s a sense among the public that this is bigger than it has to be. That’s already there. And people, frankly, are still tired of war. People have still not gotten over the 9/11 wars, 20 years of war. People are not ready for the US to get into new wars. There’s already public support there. The problem of course is that right now the public support isn’t strong enough to counter the military industry interests.
Now, the second thing you mentioned, the jobs, this is a real issue. And it’s an issue particularly in specific communities. And the reason that’s important to think about is that it’s not just a large number of jobs in the country. It’s a large number of jobs in certain specific districts, congressional districts. And those members of Congress, whatever their inclinations may be on national security, whatever their inclinations may be on military spending, are hesitant to support cuts, or at least hesitant to fight for cuts. So that’s a real problem.
And what we need to do about that is we need to create jobs through other means. We have to recognize that we need a jobs program. The military is not the jobs program we need. It is actually supporting fewer jobs than it used to, for even more money, it’s supporting fewer jobs. It’s not doing a good job. We know that dollar for dollar, if you put money into the military, it creates fewer jobs than if you put that same money into infrastructure or healthcare or childcare.
Marc Steiner: Explain what you mean by that.
Lindsay Koshgarian: If you put a million dollars into the military, you get a certain number of jobs. And we have that right now. If you take that million dollars out of the military and put it into infrastructure, or put it into clean energy, or put it into education, or healthcare, you get more jobs for the same amount of money. And they’re still good jobs. Those are all professional, living wage jobs. We’re not talking about suddenly creating a bunch of minimum wage poverty-level jobs here. This is shifting money. But because the military is just not a very efficient job creator, all those expensive weapons, the expenses of war, it’s just not the best way to create jobs.
What we need to do is when there’s a weapon system, for example, that The Pentagon wants less of, say the F-35 jet fighter, this is a weapon system The Pentagon’s been investing in for years and years. It’s gone way over budget. The plane doesn’t do any of the stuff it’s supposed to do. The Pentagon this year is asking for fewer of those planes. Congress is probably going to make them buy more than they want because of the money that it brings into certain congressional districts.
But if we could instead say, no, you’re not going to buy the planes, but we’ll create jobs in clean energy, or we’ll create jobs and we can shift people to these new jobs and not leave people hanging, not leave people unemployed, not leave local economies struggling. Those things have to go hand in hand. If we’re going to be able to take the money away from here, we have to put it over there. And that’s actually, the Build Back Better for example, would be a really good opportunity to do something like that, because it would create a bunch of jobs.
Marc Steiner: So in a way the battle around this budget – I’m going to come back to the budget itself for a moment so we can really describe it in some detail to the people listening to us today, our listeners – Is that it seems if it has to almost be a campaign to really explain this to the American people, because I don’t think it’s fully understood by masses of people.
I mean, the military is the military and people can… And they’re a respected institution in the minds of most people in this country. And many people have family in the military in this country. I mean, it seems to me there has to be a different kind of dialogue and conversation, an information campaign of some kind to begin to change the idea. Because most people will go, okay, this is true, but we need that. We have to defend ourselves. This is a dangerous place out here in the world. We have to be able to defend America. I mean, of all the things that happen on the progressive end of the spectrum, this is one of the most difficult to explain and to get through, it seems to me.
Lindsay Koshgarian: Yeah. I mean, there is something to that. But again, I’ll just point out that we have polling that shows that most people support taking… The specific question is 10% off The Pentagon budget. People have an inclination. People know that there is such a thing as a military-industrial complex. They may not be able to tell all the facts about it. They may not be able to tell you that it’s half the military budget. They may not be able to tell you who it is or what it is, but there’s a general awareness that it exists. And there is a general awareness that this is where a huge amount of money is going.
And so people are ready to do this. The problem is what people are not mostly ready to do is really put themselves out and push for it. People aren’t going to elect one candidate over another, necessarily, about this. And that’s the kind of distinction where it’s not an issue. We don’t have a lot of single issue voters on this. We don’t have a lot of people who are going out and demonstrating in the streets about this. And I think that’s where we need to really step up our efforts.
And we are doing that. We’re doing that with groups like the Poor People’s Campaign, which has chapters in more than 40 states and just had a big assembly in Washington with streets blocked off. And I don’t know how many tens of thousands of people were there. But this is one of their core demands, is cutting military spending so that we can spend that money on things that human beings in this country actually need. It’s less a question of needing to persuade people, a lot of people are already there. It’s more a question of organizing people.
Marc Steiner: Has anybody really worked on what an acceptable military budget would be? How you approach that, as opposed to what we see now?
Lindsay Koshgarian: Yeah. A lot of us have worked on, mostly from the angle of what could you cut without really making any sacrifices to safety. In some cases, things you could cut and actually probably end up safer. There’s everything from… There was a conservative-leaning group that came up with… And these numbers are all a year old at least. And so since the budget has gone up since then they’re probably bigger now. But there was a conservative-leaning group that came up with, you could cut $80 billion a year.
There was a bipartisan group of military experts that came up with $100 billion a year that you could cut. Our approach is that we should always have diplomacy over military, and the US should not be in a position of policing the world and everywhere all the time. We came up with $350 billion a year you could cut a couple of years back, and it comes from closing a bunch of our overseas bases. It comes from spending less on weapons, especially less on nuclear weapons.
It comes from having fewer planes, fewer ships, fewer of all of those things, fewer troops, which all goes along with closing bases around the world. There are lots of options that have been put forward by experts from all across the political spectrum, and any number of them could be put into action in different combinations if folks in Congress were willing to take it up.
Marc Steiner: Before we come back to the numbers, which I really want to end with because I want people to really get a sense before we’re talking about here. Because when I read your report and added some numbers up myself, it’s just a mind-boggling amount of money that we’re spending, and the extra money we’re spending that the military didn’t even ask for. But military contractors whispering in the ear of Congress asked for it instead. We got to come back to that. What does the political dynamic have to be that has to change to make this both palatable and realistic for the American people and to push Congress to do something different?
Lindsay Koshgarian: Yeah. So a big part of what has to change is that there has to stop being bipartisan agreement about this. This is maybe the only area where there is still really solid major bipartisan agreement, and that has to stop. There have to be different thoughts on this in Congress. And that’s starting to change. Some of your listeners remember that 20 years ago, Barbara Lee was the only vote in Congress against the Afghanistan War.
Today we don’t have enough votes yet, but Barbara Lee is not the only vote anymore. We have other leaders. We have representative Mark Pocan who is co-sponsoring a lot of bills on Pentagon cuts with representatives. We have the members of the Squad who are supporting and voting for this. We have a congressional progressive caucus that was just barely started 20 years ago and is now much stronger and has a hundred members in the House of Representatives.
We’re building up to this. It’s slow, it’s slower than it should be. But every year we’re working on it. Last year we got the majority of Democrats in the House to vote against adding money to what The Pentagon had requested. That’s progress, believe it or not. It wasn’t the majority of members of the House, but the majority of Democrats. And we’re working on a similar vote this year. So it’s slow but steady, continually adding. And that’s because we’re asking members of Congress to do it, because we have people organized. We have people sending emails to their members of Congress. We have people who are talking to members of Congress. We’re putting out reports saying, look, if you didn’t spend this money on The Pentagon, here’s what we could do with it instead.
And those are priorities that are what members of Congress have promised. That’s what their campaign promises are, is that we’re going to do healthcare, we’re going to do childcare, we’re going to do a Green New Deal or whatever it is, it costs money. And they know that that money needs to come from somewhere. And if we make it clear that every time you’re choosing The Pentagon, not choosing that campaign promise and people see that, slowly but surely we start to build a willingness to vote against higher Pentagon spending.
Marc Steiner: There was a quote in The New York Times when I was thinking about our conversation today that really struck me. And it came from an article earlier on, a few months back. Representative Mike Turner, Republican of Ohio, who’s a ranking member of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence and the House Armed Services Committee, both, his quote was, he said, talking about the bill, the military bill, “relatively like a Republican defense bill”. And he was just happily smiling saying this, look, this is our bill and we got it, and the Democrats did it for us. I mean, that says a whole lot.
Lindsay Koshgarian: It does say a whole lot. And Senator Jim Inhofe, who’s the Republican on the Senate side, said something similar. We got everything we wanted, basically. And that has to stop. They can’t get everything they want. One problem with it is that Democrats are in such a pattern of negotiating away higher Pentagon spending in order to get a little bit more domestic spending. They’ll give away tens and tens of billions of dollars more in Pentagon spending in order to get a little bit more for the domestic priorities that they want.
But it has to stop going that way because first of all, it costs more if you’re going to give $1.50 to The Pentagon every time you give a dollar to something domestic. That costs a lot, and that’s not something we can afford to do endlessly. And that money that’s going to The Pentagon is still money that’s not going to these other priorities. So we just need to not let members of Congress get away with it anymore. And we have activist groups that are starting to solve, they push on that. And a lot of it is about don’t put that money over here, we need it for other things.
Marc Steiner: I mean, I think that what I was reading in the article that you put out most recently is that this budget is almost $1 trillion, the military budget. And it’s not, as you mentioned earlier, like the $2.2 trillion that we spent over 10 years, if I have that correct, to Build Back Better, to make America stronger internally. It’s spent in one year.
Lindsay Koshgarian: Right. We’re pushing now $850 billion. And at the rate it’s been, in just a few years it could be $1 trillion every year. And yes, and that is possibly 10 years worth of a Build Back Better type of bill every single year. So it’s a huge amount of money, and it just keeps going up. And if we can’t cut the military budget when we end a war, when we get out of Afghanistan, if we can’t save some money, when are we going to be able to save some money?
Marc Steiner: Military contractors say you can save money. Talk a bit about in this month of July and August what people can do. What are you all working on?
Lindsay Koshgarian: Yeah. We actually have some important votes on a bill called the National Defense Authorization Act, which we’re expecting to be voted on next week in the House of Representatives. And there are two amendments that people can ask their members of Congress to support. There’s an amendment from representative Barbara Lee and representative Mark Pocan to cut $100 billion from The Pentagon budget.
And then there’s another amendment to not give The Pentagon more than it asked for. So the House Armed Services Committee added $37 billion to what The Pentagon asked for. This amendment says, strip that away. Just give them what they asked for. What people can do immediately, today, tomorrow, as soon as possible, call your member of Congress, call your representative in the House of Representatives, and ask them to support these two amendments.
Marc Steiner: I really want to stay on top of this with you. I mean, it’s always good to talk with you, and the work you do I think is incredibly important for people to understand. And what we really need to do is see some progressive Democrats and others come together and take this information and make a public campaign out of it so people can really understand what’s going on to say, no, we need something different in this country.
Lindsay Koshgarian: That’s right.
Marc Steiner: And I appreciate you, Lindsay Koshgarian, and the work that you do, and pushing it so hard, spending your time doing this for all of us. Thank you so much.
Lindsay Koshgarian: Thanks, Marc. And thanks for covering it.
Marc Steiner: It’s always good to have you with us.
Lindsay Koshgarian: It’s good to be here.
Marc Steiner: Thank you all for joining us today. And please let me know what you thought about today’s conversation and what you’d like us to cover. Just write to me at firstname.lastname@example.org and I’ll get right back to you. So for Stephen Frank and the crew here at The Real News, I’m Marc Steiner. Stay involved, keep listening, and take care.