Fighting for a U.S. federal budget that prioritizes peace, economic security and shared prosperity
The security of United States and the world depends on far more than throwing money at the Pentagon to deal with potential military challenges. The spread of the coronavirus (COVID-19) underscores this fact.
The Sustainable Defense Task Force, a group of former Congressional and Pentagon budget officials, ex-military officers, and non-governmental experts brought together by my organization, the Center for International Policy, makes the case for a more expansive view of security:
“[T]he most urgent threats to U.S. security are non-military, and the proper national security tools ought to be non-military as well. [The threats] include climate change, which undermines frontiers, leads to unpredictable extreme weather, and fosters uncontrollable migration . . . global disease epidemics, which pose societal risks to all nations; and income and wealth gaps, which foster insecurity and conflict.”
Unfortunately, federal budget priorities are far out of line with this new security landscape. The Pentagon budget and related spending on nuclear weapons, pegged at a near record level of $740 billion, consumes well over one-half of the nation’s discretionary budget, which includes most government functions other than entitlement programs like Medicare and Social Security. This leaves inadequate funding for the non-military tools we urgently need to deal with non-traditional threats to public safety and global security.
Thankfully, the House of Representatives has just passed an $8.3 billion package designed to address the Coronavirus outbreak. It should be passed into law as soon as possible. But investments in public health should not rely on emergency measures. We need a plan and an amply funded investment strategy to deal with current and future epidemics. So far, this has not been the case.
Microsoft founder Bill Gates has stated that the world should be preparing for a pandemic with the same seriousness that it devotes to preparing for war. But as Linda Bilmes of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government has noted, in recent years we have been moving in the wrong direction: the Trump administration sought to cut the budget of the Centers for Disease Control by $1.3 billion, or 20%, in its 2020 budget, including deep cuts in programs designed to address emerging diseases. This trend must be reversed in favor of a steadily increasing, multi-year investment in public health research and activities.
The funds for such an initiative are there to be had if the United States takes a more restrained, less militarized approach to foreign and domestic policy. Research by Ashik Siddique of the National Priorities Project at the Institute for Policy Studies indicates that a $2 billion investment would be enough to fund a $1 billion crash program to develop a COVID-19 vaccine at the National Institutes of Health and an additional $1 billion in foreign aid to help fight the global outbreak of the Coronavirus. Add to that $5 billion for a Public Health and Social Emergency Fund to fight the spread of the coronavirus and an additional $2 billion to reimburse state and local efforts to combat the disease and you have a total of $7 billion, or less than one percent of the Pentagon budget. A forward looking public health investment strategy could cost billions more, but these additional funds would still represent a rounding error in the largesse lavished on the Pentagon. And there’s plenty of wasteful and misguided Pentagon spending to choose from to make room for these crucial investments, including a dangerous and unnecessary $1.5 trillion nuclear weapons buildup slated for the next three decades and the department’s over-utilization of private contractors, many of whom do jobs that are redundant, and could be performed more cheaply by civilian government employees.
A comprehensive approach to security requires a thorough rethinking of current priorities. Freeing up a fraction of the Pentagon budget to pay for a robust, multi-year public health initiative is a good place to start.