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Congress rejects a 10% Pentagon budget cut as it prepares to debate funds for nuclear testing

The week of July 20, both chambers of Congress rejected amendments—introduced by Barbara Lee and Mark Pocan on the House side, and Senator Sanders on the Senate side—to the National Defense Authorization Act that would have redirected 10 percent of the Pentagon budget towards community needs like housing, education, and healthcare (Senate 22-77, House 93-324). Then, the House and Senate passed their versions of the NDAA with bipartisan majorities authorizing a whopping $740 billion for the Pentagon. Meanwhile, the stage has been set for a House-Senate debate over funding for new nuclear weapons tests.

These misplaced priorities were a problem before the pandemic. Last year, the Centers for Disease Control budget was only $7 billion, less than 1 percent of the Pentagon budget. Those figures alone tell us what we need to know about where our priorities have been misguided. In December of 2019, the Trump administration supported a rule change to kick 700,000 people off of food stamps and proposed making major cuts to the Center for Disease Control in favor of increasing the nuclear weapons budget and producing new nuclear warheads. The urgency of the pandemic, however, has unified progressive members of Congress under the message that we cannot continue defense spending at seemingly “normal” rates.

“Congress’s priorities are so severely unbalanced that—even as millions of people across the country fall ill from the novel coronavirus—our leaders refuse to muster the political will to reinvest wasteful Pentagon spending in programs that will keep Americans safe and healthy,” said Congressional Progressive Caucus Co-Chairs, Representatives Mark Pocan and Pramila Jayapal.

PSR recognized that, given the challenges of Covid-19, we needed to make it clear that the American people needed masks, not missiles. For the health and safety of the communities we work in, PSR was compelled to support this effort that was in line with a just transition and a just recovery. For these reasons, multiple PSR chapters, from Maryland to San Francisco, joined this fight for a 10% Pentagon budget cut in coalition with groups like Public Citizen and Peace Action to encourage their representatives and Senators to support these amendments. Despite the House and Senate rejecting the measure there are plenty of reasons we were proud to be part of this effort:

  • The progressive caucus unified and threatened a no vote if the NDAA didn’t include a topline defense spending cut.
  • Democrats changed party platforms on defense spending:, “We can and must ensure our security while restoring stability, predictability, and fiscal discipline in defense spending.”
  • The amendment gained support from important congressional leaders like Senator Chuck Schumer, and other members who supported the amendment plan on continuing this fight into next year.
  • PSR’s support of the amendment was referenced by Senator Bernie Sanders when he introduced his amendment on the Senate Floor.

Now, Congress is heading towards a contentious debate between the House and Senate over differences of opinion about the strategic value of returning to nuclear weapons testing. The Senate Armed Services Committee approved an amendment, sponsored by Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), to be included in the Senate version of the legislation that would allocate $10 million to “carry out projects related to reducing the time required to execute a nuclear test if necessary.”

The proposal on nuclear testing comes after reports earlier this year that the Trump administration raised the prospect of resuming nuclear testing as a negotiating tactic against Moscow and Beijing as part of its ill-fated quest for trilateral arms control negotiations. Because of the enormous environmental and public health dangers associated with nuclear weapons testing, the United States has not conducted an explosive test since 1992, checking the efficacy and reliability of its weapons with alternative tests that produce no nuclear yield, like computer simulations.

Sen. Cotton’s amendment received push-back in the House version of the national defense legislation, which includes an opposing amendment, passed by a  227-179 margin,to prohibit funding from being used “to conduct or make preparations for any explosive nuclear weapons test that produces any yield.” This  amendment was adopted largely on party lines, however, meaning that unless Sen. Cotton’s amendment is removed in the Senate appropriations committees, Congress will be heading towards a debate over nuclear weapons testing when the House and Senate debate the two versions of the NDAA in conference later this year.

Local and state government officials also criticized the administration on the testing issue.

  • Rep. Dina Titus (D-Nev.) and Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) filed companion bills in the House and Senate to prevent nuclear testing at the Nevada National Security Site north of Las Vegas.
  • Rep. Steven Horsford (D-Nev.), whose congressional district includes the testing  site, co-sponsored the Titus bill, citing safety concerns and the lack of need to resume testing.
  • Rep. Ben McAdams (D-UT)  linked his criticism to a 1997 National Institute of Cancer study which found that every state received some level of fallout from nuclear testing and that 200,000 cases of thyroid cancer alone were associated with it.

As we approach the 75th anniversaries of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagaski, it is vital that United States policy makers recognize the dangerous path towards nuclear escalation this administration has put us on. The prioritization of resources towards nuclear weapons and considering a return to nuclear testing puts the security and health of every American at risk and will not make new arms control agreements between world powers more likely.

We need real human security. COVID-19 has highlighted and aggravated negative consequences of our misplaced funding priorities and it is more critical than ever that those needs are realized as the pandemic continues to disrupt our society, leaving immeasurable damage.