Congress Is Deadlocked On COVID-19 Relief

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Above photo: Hospital staff look on as the United States Navy Blue Angels pass over Medical City Dallas on May 06, 2020 in Dallas, Texas. Tom Pennington/Getty Images.

But Came Together to Fund the Pentagon for $740 Billion.

There is always money for war.

The annu­al approval of the gar­gan­tu­an U.S. mil­i­tary bud­get is one of the most reli­able rit­u­als in Con­gress. It is so ordi­nary and over­whelm­ing­ly bipar­ti­san, it’s bare­ly con­sid­ered news­wor­thy, and few out­lets fol­low the details of exact­ly how much the gov­ern­ment is allo­cat­ing to a nuclear weapons buildup, or deploy­ments to the Asia Pacif­ic, or the steady creep of U.S. mil­i­tary bases across the con­ti­nent of Africa. Even under Pres­i­dent Trump, when the Demo­c­ra­t­ic lead­er­ship claims to have struck a more con­fronta­tion­al pos­ture, those same lead­ers have repeat­ed­ly hand­ed him bloat­ed mil­i­tary bud­gets, as we saw Wednes­day with Con­gress’ bicam­er­al approval of a rough­ly $740 bil­lion mil­i­tary bud­get for 2021.

It is real­ly only Trump’s threats to veto the Nation­al Defense Autho­riza­tion Act (NDAA), most recent­ly over his objec­tions to some lia­bil­i­ty pro­tec­tions for social media com­pa­nies, that cut through the noise. When that does hap­pen, the head­lines often look like this one from ABC News: Trump’s veto threat on must-pass defense bill meets GOP resis­tance.” (Oth­er­wise objec­tive” ABC News has no prob­lem ran­dom­ly edi­to­ri­al­iz­ing about the essen­tial­ness of the Pen­ta­gon bud­get. A search of ABC News’ archives reveals no such must-pass” mod­i­fi­er for child health­care, hous­ing relief or Covid-relat­ed relief.)

But this is no ordi­nary year. As Con­gress races to pass the NDAA for 2021, it does so in a coun­try that is hurtling toward months that could be among the most dif­fi­cult in the pub­lic health his­to­ry of this nation,” accord­ing to Dr. Robert Red­field, the direc­tor of the Cen­ters for Dis­ease Con­trol and Pre­ven­tion. Along with this health cri­sis, whose scale in the Unit­ed States was entire­ly pre­ventable, comes eco­nom­ic dev­as­ta­tion: Lines for food banks are stretch­ing for miles and, accord­ing to one study, one in six peo­ple is food inse­cure. As of Sep­tem­ber, one in six adults said they live in a house that’s behind on rent.

The near­ly $3 tril­lion in stim­u­lus spend­ing so far has come from bills passed in March and April, includ­ing the CARES Act, which togeth­er com­bined cor­po­rate bailouts and tax breaks for the wealthy with mea­sures that, while insuf­fi­cient, pro­vid­ed at least some gen­uine relief, includ­ing expand­ed unem­ploy­ment insur­ance and $1,200 checks. But with­out a new relief pack­age, rough­ly 12 mil­lion peo­ple are poised to lose their unem­ploy­ment ben­e­fits at the end of this year, and fed­er­al pro­tec­tions against evic­tions (which have been gross­ly insuf­fi­cient and sig­nif­i­cant­ly walked back) and defer­ment of stu­dent loan pay­ments are also set to expire. While there are some reports of renewed dis­cus­sion of Covid relief, there has been lit­tle mean­ing­ful move­ment, and there’s a good chance that stalled nego­ti­a­tions will bring unfath­omable lev­els of eco­nom­ic dev­as­ta­tion to tens of mil­lions of people.

It is worth tak­ing a moment to con­trast this stale­mate over coro­n­avirus relief with bipar­ti­san sup­port for the U.S. war machine.

The Unit­ed States has by far the biggest mil­i­tary bud­get on the plan­et, spend­ing more than the next 10 coun­tries com­bined. There is no indi­ca­tion that U.S. law­mak­ers plan to reverse this trend any­time soon: For six con­sec­u­tive years the mil­i­tary bud­get has either increased or stayed rough­ly the same, tak­ing infla­tion into account. As the Nation­al Pri­or­i­ties Project point­ed out in June, the mil­i­tary bud­get in 2019 account­ed for 53% of the fed­er­al dis­cre­tionary bud­get. How­ev­er, if you con­sid­er the mil­i­ta­rized bud­get,” includ­ing vet­er­ans’ affairs, home­land secu­ri­ty, and law enforce­ment and incar­cer­a­tion,” this num­ber jumps to 64.5% of the fed­er­al dis­cre­tionary bud­get. But actu­al U.S. spend­ing on wars is far greater. Writ­ers Mandy Smith­berg­er and William Har­tung dis­cussed last year, There are at least 10 sep­a­rate pots of mon­ey ded­i­cat­ed to fight­ing wars, prepar­ing for yet more wars, and deal­ing with the con­se­quences of wars already fought.” As a result, the cost of war eas­i­ly exceeds $1 tril­lion per year, Smith­berg­er and Har­tung conclude.

Being expen­sive in itself is not grounds for objec­tion: Some real­ly good things that we des­per­ate­ly need are expen­sive, like pay­ing peo­ple to stay home so that they can sur­vive the pan­dem­ic. The war bud­get is bad because the U.S. mil­i­tarism, aggres­sion and med­dling that it finances are deeply harm­ful — among the most harm­ful forces on Earth. The Unit­ed States has rough­ly 800 mil­i­tary bases around the world, under­min­ing local self-deter­mi­na­tion, emit­ting envi­ron­men­tal poi­son and car­bon emis­sions, and bring­ing increased risk of sex­u­al assault. The so-called War on Ter­ror” has turned the whole plan­et into a U.S. bat­tle­field, and now the Unit­ed States is plan­ning to inten­si­fy its mil­i­ta­riza­tion of the Asia-Pacif­ic region in order to esca­late against Chi­na, which the cur­rent NDAA reflects, with bipar­ti­san sup­port. As the world suf­fered from the coro­n­avirus pan­dem­ic, the Unit­ed States con­tin­ued its sup­port for bomb­ings in Yemen, ratch­eted up bru­tal sanc­tions regimes, and now the Trump admin­is­tra­tion is, once again, engag­ing in dan­ger­ous brinkman­ship with Iran, no doubt mak­ing the pan­dem­ic far worse for those caught in U.S. crosshairs.

As the pan­dem­ic was rag­ing, Con­gress had no prob­lem pass­ing leg­is­la­tion to con­tin­ue U.S. mil­i­tary vio­lence. The Sen­ate ver­sion of the NDAA passed on July 23 in a vote of 86 – 14, while the House ver­sion was approved July 21 by 295 – 125. This defense bill was then approved Decem­ber 2 by both cham­bers of Congress.

To be fair, some have tried to use the pan­dem­ic to call for decreas­ing the mil­i­tary bud­get. In July, a pro­pos­al in both the House and the Sen­ate to cut the mil­i­tary bud­get by 10% (or $74 bil­lion), and divert those funds to social pro­grams, failed. This pro­posed cut is a small frac­tion of what’s need­ed to make a dent in the harm­ful U.S. mil­i­tary appa­ra­tus. Yet, accord­ing to the Nation­al Pri­or­i­ties Project, even the $74 bil­lion this pro­pos­al would have divert­ed could have fund­ed 44 times as many coro­n­avirus tests at the time, or pro­vid­ed hous­ing for the over half a mil­lion home­less peo­ple in the country.

While entire­ly rou­tine at this point, it’s use­ful to high­light on the eve of yet anoth­er mas­sive Pen­ta­gon hand­out how the bud­get for war could instead go toward life-pre­serv­ing social goods. This is use­ful, not to buy into aus­ter­i­ty notions of scarci­ty, but sim­ply to show the pro­found immoral­i­ty of where our pub­lic resources go. When it comes to mil­i­tary spend­ing, the sky is the lim­it. Space Force? Sure. Rough­ly $21.9 bil­lion for nuclear weapons pro­grams? No prob­lem. But when it comes to keep­ing peo­ple alive, U.S. polit­i­cal imag­i­na­tion is sig­nif­i­cant­ly more con­strained. Right off the bat in March, Demo­c­ra­t­ic leader Rep. Nan­cy Pelosi (Calif.) shot down uni­ver­sal, robust cash pay­ments to keep peo­ple afloat, even as high-pro­file fig­ures like Sen. Bernie Sanders (I‑Vt.) and Rep. Rashi­da Tlaib (D‑Mich.) called for such measures.

This is not to say that Repub­li­cans and Democ­rats are equal­ly to blame for the present impasse. As Hadas Thi­er wrote for In These Times in Octo­ber, The lion’s share of respon­si­bil­i­ty for failed nego­ti­a­tions sure­ly lays at the Repub­li­cans’ door, but the real­i­ty is that des­per­ate­ly need­ed eco­nom­ic relief is being treat­ed as a polit­i­cal foot­ball on all sides.” Rather, we should not allow bipar­ti­san agree­ment on mil­i­tary spend­ing to sim­ply fade into the back­ground, as an unre­mark­able and immutable fact of U.S. pol­i­tics. That we can find the mon­ey for war but not for coro­n­avirus relief expos­es the moral rot at the cen­ter of U.S. pol­i­tics, a rot that must be dug out and expunged if we are to get through this crisis.

Sarah Lazare is web edi­tor at In These Times. She comes from a back­ground in inde­pen­dent jour­nal­ism for pub­li­ca­tions includ­ing The Inter­ceptThe Nation, and Tom Dis­patch. She tweets at @sarahlazare.