41 Democrats, 6 Republicans, and 1 Independent stood against a record  $738 billion for defense, which gives Trump his space force and the right to launch more wars.


Story Transcript

MARC STEINER: Welcome to The Real News. I’m Marc Steiner. Good to have you all with us.

Wednesday night, the United States Congress passed a $738 billion defense bill. That’s $20 billion more than last year, and $120 billion more than under Obama. 180 Democrats voted for it, along with most of the Republicans. Now, that vote was interesting. 41 Democrats, 6 Republicans, and 1 Independent voted no. But this bill is a hugely comprehensive bill that gives Trump his Space Force and gives the green light to more wars without end.

To put this in perspective, Poor People’s Campaign leader Liz Theoharis said in The Nation that we give $34 billion in this bill to Lockheed Martin–which we’ll talk about during the course of this conversation–but nothing in this Congress for 140 million people living in poverty or the 40 million people facing food insecurity across the country, let alone what we need for our teachers, schools, and building a new green economy. So how do we respond? What does this mean for the future? What are the next steps? What happens in the U.S. Senate?

And we are joined by Hassan El-Tayyab, who is Legislative Representative for Middle East policy for the Friends Congressional National Legislative Committee. Good to have you with us once again here on The Real News.

HASSAN EL-TAYYAB: Thank you so much for having me, Marc. Just one quick clarification. It’s the Friends Committee on National Legislation.

MARC STEINER: Yes. I’m sorry. You’re right. My dyslexic self shining through one more time. But let’s begin with this. I want to play this short piece first, with Ro Khanna, a Congressman, and his response to this bill. And then we’ll pick up from there.

RO KHANNA: I rise in strong opposition to this defense authorization. There are many things that you can call the bill, but it’s Orwellian to call it progressive. Let’s speak in facts. When President Obama left, the defense budget was $618 billion. This defense budget is $120 billion more than what President Obama left us with. That could fund free public college for every American. At some time, we can’t just rhetorically give standing ovations when the President says, “We’re going to end endless wars and continue to vote to…”

MARC STEINER: So he touched on some of the complexity here. Just the Orwellian speak the progressive defense bill, but A, let me start with this, Hassan. It shows that no matter what happens in Congress in many ways, the power of the defense industry, beyond the Pentagon itself, which even asked for this much money, is what’s in part pushing this and I think that’s often the unspoken power behind the throne, when it comes to this bill.

HASSAN EL-TAYYAB: Well I think that’s right. There is a lot of momentum to pass the National Defense Authorization Act. Year after year and we see increased spending levels. I mean this is the greatest amount allocated for military and defense spending pretty much since World War II. And we are quote/unquote at peace time. Another thing I think it’s worth mentioning is that this bill fails to reassert article one, section eight, congressional war authority. And that was something that Friends Committee on National Legislation, we’ve been taking exceeding interest in, with all of our advocacy and lobbying. Put aside the dollar amount for a second, which is obviously critical when we are looking at cuts to food stamps and increasing the Pentagon by billions of dollars.

So that’s, in and of itself, really disturbing. But there are also a lot of House passed provisions in the National Defense Authorization Act and a lot of those were stripped out in conference. And we were working to try to preserve the provision to end US support for the war in Yemen, to repeal the 2002, outdated Iraq AMF. Again, we have not used that as a primary justification for use of force, in about seven or eight years. And also trying to prevent Trump from a sending us into an unauthorized war against Iran. And all of those provisions were stripped out, despite tireless lobbying by so many advocates around the country and in DC. So overall, the Democrats, they didn’t get what I think they could have gotten had they taken a firmer stance and were willing to go to the mat to protect all of these provisions.

MARC STEINER: But two things kind of really blow my mind about this. I mean A, we haven’t had a declared war since World War II. It’s like Congress completely is abdicating in their responsibility here to talk for the citizens of this country, when it comes to going to war. And B, the House is in control of the Democrats. So where do you think the problem lies? Why do you think this could happen when the house is in control of the people who say they oppose these kinds of measures?

HASSAN EL-TAYYAB: It’s a very complex question. I think there’s certainly inertia as that it was the first time in years that chairman Adam Smith had the gavel. So I think that could have been part of it. I think there were other priorities that the leadership wanted, and clearly ending endless war was not one of those. So I think it was a combination of things. But again the sheer inertia of just trying to get this bill through, and the fact that Democrats, to their credit they’re interested in governing, but when you have Republicans not negotiating necessarily in good faith, that can be problematic. They’re willing to take the bill and the Democrats want to get some sort of deal, and so they’re on a weaker negotiating playing field. So hopefully, there are a lot of lessons learned.

I think the whole peace community and a lot of people are outraged right now at the leadership, for pushing through this deal that has no progressive foreign policy attached to it. So the actual wins, if you were mostly on the domestic side, there was 12 weeks paid family leave for federal workers, and also a provision to ban the box for federal workers, in case people have prison records. So those are good. Those are great provisions, and we applaud that effort. But that did not need to happen on the Defense Authorization Act. That should have happened in appropriations on domestic policy. This was specifically designed and has been there to set policy for the Pentagon and our military. So, I don’t really understand why those provision, the major wins on this bill, for the Democratic side, or the progressive side, were all domestic policy-related.

MARC STEINER: So I’m curious how you would respond to this Tweed by Warren Gunnels, who’s this senior special advisor to Senator Bernie Sanders. And what he says in this tweet is, “New rule. Every member of Congress who voted to give the most corrupt, unhinged, and unstable president in history, $738 billion to fight endless Wars, fund a bogus space force, and put our troops at risk, must never tell us that we can’t afford Medicare for all, or a green new deal ever.”

So how do you begin to translate this action into that kind of political action? Because I mean the people in this country, for many interesting and good reasons, support the military. Even those who don’t support all the incursions that we do in the name of the United States across the globe. But if you take this political sensibility from people like Warren Gunnels, how do you begin to turn this around? What do you think this conversation for the us Senate, which has to take it up next, which is in the control of conservative, right wing Republicans.

HASSAN EL-TAYYAB: I think it’s really challenging when so many people in the country are in need of a real safety net. I mean, healthcare education. We have an infrastructure that needs development and we are losing the tech race to China, and they’re developing 5G, investing in AI. For us to spend billions and billions and billions more each year on defense, to me, one, I think it’s immoral.

I also think that it’s not really making us safer, and I think that is the thing that we need to drive home. That just throwing more and more money at the military doesn’t necessarily equal safety. You know? Security means that our people have what they need and the fact that we’ve got 30 million people without healthcare, we’ve got people living in poverty. You know, those are things that we really should be addressing with that money. And simply, we need to reign in the endless Wars and Pentagon spending.

MARC STEINER: I mean, in part of it brings me to two things here that I want to kind of address before we leave each other is that, as I said earlier, you take Lockheed Martin, who gets $34 billion in this bill, for more F5s and the Pentagon even asked for. And to me that part that is the bottom of it, it’s the heart of this; is the power of that industry. The power that they have over Congressional representatives to vote the way they want to vote. They get the billions and billions of dollars to go to this defense industry. But that’s a piece of what’s happening here that we need to kind of really probe and expose. It seemed to me.

HASSAN EL-TAYYAB: Well certainly, money in politics is a huge part of the issue in the fact that weapons contractors and corporate lobbyists have so much access to our politicians. But on the other side of this, we also proved that there’s bipartisan support to end endless war and reassert constitutional war authority. And we shouldn’t forget that. I mean all of the House-passed provisions that we were supporting got a tremendous amount of bipartisan support. The Yemen War Powers Resolution got bipartisan support. So it proves that Republicans and Democrats can come together to end endless wars. We just need to do a lot more work, keep educating people, and next week, the National Defense Authorization Act that got passed by the House, it’s going to go to the Senate for a vote.

So I think folks need to reach out to their senators and urge a hard no vote on this NDAA, and send the negotiators back to the bargaining table, to try to get a better deal for the American people. That includes again, a reassertion of congressional war authority, and at the very least, ending US support for the Yemen War that’s brought 14 million people to the brink of famine, and 1 million cases of cholera. I mean we have no business participating, and not to mention, again, it wasn’t authorized by Congress. All the more reason to end the war.

MARC STEINER: So, don’t you have a number to call for that?

HASSAN EL-TAYYAB: Yeah, the 1-833-STOPWAR number. We have to update it. It was going to representatives before we’d have to change it, but you can just call the Congressional switch board. Look up your member online and you know, just make sure that they’re voting no on the National Defense Authorization Act next week.

MARC STEINER: So I’m going to leave you all with this one thought and this is a former president of the United States who was a five star general, and led the army armed forces during World War II was president in 1950s, of course, Dwight D. Eisenhower. And Dwight D. Eisenhower told our nation this, back in 1959.

DWIGHT D. EISENHOWER: Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed. Those who are clothed and are not clothed. This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of his children.

MARC STEINER: And that was from a Republican president who was a five star general. And Hassan El-Tayyab, thank you so much for joining us. Appreciate you taking the time. Look forward to more conversations and we’ll stay on this with you until we’re done.

HASSAN EL-TAYYAB: Thank you so much, Marc, appreciate it.

MARC STEINER: And I’m Marc Steiner here for The Real News Network. Let us know what you think. Take care.