Debt Ceiling Deal Reinforced Washington’s Old Double Standard for Military Spending

NPP Pressroom

The Messenger
Lindsay Koshgarian

he whole point of the budget deal just approved by Congress was ostensibly to slow spending and reduce the national debt. Yet, the most expensive federal agency included in the deal didn’t get a budget cut — it got a raise. 

That agency is the Pentagon. Under the debt ceiling deal, Pentagon spending will rise to $886 billion

The fact that the Pentagon skated through the melee not only without a scratch but as a big winner speaks to an entrenched double standard that’s been accepted for far too long in Washington. 

That double standard says there’s no price too high for the Pentagon, even while it claims the wealthiest country in the world apparently can’t afford to make sure all of its people have basic access to food, housing and health care. 

That takes a lot of chutzpah to maintain. The reality is that the Pentagon budget is far higher than it should be. Half of the Pentagon budget each year goes to contractors. Those same contractors have apparently been price-gouging the Pentagon — and us, the taxpayers — for years, and they’ve largely gotten away with it. 

An expose by CBS’s 60 Minutes, which broke as budget negotiations were underway, reported that the price Raytheon charged the Pentagon for a stinger missile had increased sevenfold since the 1990s — after accounting for inflation and improvements. In another of many examples, 60 Minutes reported contractors Lockheed Martin and Boeing hiked the prices on Patriot missiles to make a 40% profit

There’s a lot of savings to be had there. Yet, Congress chose to target programs supporting human needs for extra cuts and accounting.

As part of the new budget deal, some current recipients of food stamps (SNAP) and welfare (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families) will be required to provide proof of work in order to continue receiving benefits — a burdensome paperwork requirement that often gets eligible recipients disqualified. SNAP benefits for an individual max out at $281 per month.

The Pentagon doesn’t have to pass any test of accountability with its money in order to get a raise. It’s the only major government agency that’s never passed an audit, recently failing its fifth in a row. That means the bipartisan debt deal passed by Congress gives a $28 billion raise to an agency that literally doesn’t even know where the $858 billion it’s already getting this year is going.

According to my counting, the new deal gives the Pentagon and nuclear weapons a combined $73 billion per month — or 262 million times the maximum food stamps benefit. Instead of a 54-year-old living in poverty having to fill out some forms to get his $281, the Pentagon should have to finally pass its audit before it can get its $73 billion per month.

Then there’s the basic problem of whether the Pentagon does what it’s supposed to do. Few could argue that the Pentagon’s major endeavors over the past 20 years, especially the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, were money well spent. Both debacles ended badly for the Pentagon, taxpayers, military service members and the people of those regions.

It's hard to argue that money has kept anyone safer. At least with food stamps, people actually buy food.

As it stands, the legislation passed by Congress would take military spending from 53% of the budget Congress sets each year to 56%. That balance seems too high to begin with, but even keeping the military at a steady 53% of the same pot of money could have freed up $48 billion to put back into domestic programs. That would be enough to keep 5.5 million families in public housing, pay over half a million elementary school teachers or keep more than 1 million kids in Head Start. 

Instead, under the deal worked out by the White House and House Republicans, those programs all face freezes or cuts. 

Meanwhile, Pentagon boosters in Congress are already talking about passing new legislation to add billions more for the Pentagon outside of this deal. Similar workarounds have been tried and succeeded before. There’s no similar boost on the horizon for programs for Americans in need.

That double standard isn’t good for our country or its budget. We need to invest in our communities and in protecting our planet, not shortchange ourselves to plow more money into the Pentagon. 

Lindsay Koshgarian is a federal budgeting expert who directs the National Priorities Project at the Institute for Policy Studies. She’s the lead author of the institute’s report, “The Warfare State: How Funding for Militarism Compromises Our Welfare.”