Opinion

Past Spending Has Not Bought Us Security. This Must Change.

Back in July, Congress failed the American people by choosing to fully authorize the Pentagon’s obscene budget request. At a time when almost every American is being forced to tighten their belts, the Pentagon is looking to expand theirs.

Both the Senate and House proposed amendments that called for a 10 percent reduction of the $740 billion dollar Pentagon budget with the hopes to reallocate those funds to support Americans most in need. While these proposals did not pass, more than 100 members of Congress made a statement by voting in favor of these amendments and recognized the pressing need to support Americans during this time of uncertainty.

Now, as the need for another COVID-19 stimulus package is increasingly evident, with dwindling testing supplies and rising unemployment and business closures, it is unclear how members of Congress will respond. Will they prioritize the pressing issues Americans are facing, or will they continue to fuel a distorted bureaucratic system that prioritizes the needs of wealthy defense contractors over everyday Americans?

In navigating this current crisis, our lawmakers should not be content with the status quo, which has failed far too many Americans. The United States spends more on traditional defense than the next ten nations combined, more on nuclear weapons systems than any other nation, and we spend more on health care per capita than other developed countries. Still, recent statistics revealed that life expectancy in the United States was the lowest compared to 10 other wealthy nations and infant mortality was the highest.

Racial differences are also stark in this country. Compared to white women, Black women are 22 percent more likely to die of heart disease, 71 percent more likely to die of cervical cancer and 243 percent more likely to die in pregnancy and childbirth. Education and income do not explain these disparities in health outcomes. All of these statistics predated COVID-19, a pandemic which has revealed even more starkly both the chronic underfunding of the nation’s public health system and the deadly health disparities for Black, Brown and poor Americans.

So despite having the biggest most expensive military in the world and one of the most expensive health care systems as well, we are feeling anything but secure. Our economy has been devastated and over 150,000 people have died already from a viral pandemic nowhere near under control. People are starting to ask questions. The role of racism in policing, housing, health care — every aspect of American life — is causing people of all colors to question long-held beliefs. In addition to a demand that we transform the role and funding of our police, many are asking the same questions about military spending and the need for increasingly expensive, increasingly deadly weapons against enemies and wars that never seem to end while we cannot even mount an effective offense against a virus.

The next COVID-19 stimulus package should go toward addressing the needs of the American people, not the desires of military contractors. A $1 trillion coronavirus stimulus package proposed by Senate Republicans would put $29.4 billion toward defense spending, even though the Pentagon was just essentially given $740 billion courtesy of the National Defense Authorization Act, and another $10.5 billion in the first COVID-19 relief package. On top of it all, large defense contractors are increasing their profit and revenue forecasts for 2020.

Defense contractors are asking for more money in the midst of a global pandemic, while our health care systems are overwhelmed and lacking resources. This request has been met, rightly, with bipartisan opposition from groups on the left and the right, and skepticism from top Armed Services and Appropriations Committee Democrats.

Instead of allocating more money toward building fighter jets and replenishing private contractors’ coffers, Congress should be addressing our greatest threats here at home. With a 10 percent cut to Pentagon spending, the U.S. government could have provided more than 2 billion coronavirus tests, purchased nearly 21.5 billion N95 respirator masks or paid the salaries of more than 900,000 elementary school teachers. That money alone could end homelessness in the United States. To address the insecurity that Americans face against COVID-19 and its aftermath, our Senators and Congresspeople need urgently to focus on what Americans need and support equity, fund housing, education, and health care.

It is time to rethink how we define security and how we spend our money. Congress has the chance to course correct its actions. It starts with removing any aid being considered for the Pentagon in this or future stimulus packages.

Gwen DuBois, MD, MPH, a retired internal medicine practitioner in Baltimore and a part-time instructor in the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, is president of Chesapeake Physicians for Social Responsibility, a national board member of Physicians for Social Responsibility and on the public health committee of the Maryland Medical Association. 

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