By Maya Schenwar / Truthout
The Biden administration recently released an astronomical spending request for the military, in addition to large requests for police and other forces of state violence. Now, Republicans are pushing back by calling for even more state-violence-related dollars, even as they propose legislation that would severely slash survival-level necessities like food assistance, education, child care, cancer and Alzheimer’s research, affordable housing and rail safety.
As Congress holds a slew of hearings on the budget during this month and next, it’s crucial to challenge both Biden’s violence-heavy budget and the Republicans’ even-worse proposals — and to demand an entirely different path.
By nearly any measure, Biden’s $886 billion military budget request for fiscal year 2024 is sky-high. “We are talking about a historically massive sum of money,” Stephen Miles, president of Win Without War, told me. “The only time that we’ve given the Pentagon more money than is currently proposed, in our entire history since World War II, is the absolute peak of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.” That’s based on numbers adjusted for inflation.
Biden’s proposed military budget, which accounts for the majority of the federal discretionary budget, amounts to $69 billion more than last year’s request. And as National Priorities Project Program Director Lindsay Koshgarian points out, “Congress will in all likelihood raise Pentagon and war spending for next year higher than the Biden request.” Indeed, Khury Petersen-Smith describes a recent pattern in which Congress consistently demands even more for the military than the military itself is asking for. The president’s yearly request is based on a sprawling wish list from the Pentagon — but Congress regularly deems the Pentagon’s astronomical requests to be insufficient and adds even more items to that list. “To be clear about the kind of commitment to U.S militarism that exists in Washington: Congress is outdoing the Department of Defense,” Peterson-Smith said recently on the Transnational Times podcast.
This year, the “national defense” budget could end up totaling up to $950 billion after congressional add-ons. Clearly — and terrifyingly — we are not that far from the day when the U.S. will see a $1 trillion military budget.
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Roughly half of the Biden military budget request is “immediately going back out the door to the corporations who get rich by siphoning your and my tax dollars through the Pentagon.”
While some might assume that the expanding military budget is due to the U.S. response to Russia’s war on Ukraine, Miles told me “the budget isn’t going up because of the war in Ukraine.” Funding increases related to Ukraine have largely come through supplemental spending bills — extra money approved separately from the normal budgeting process — as has often been the case for war spending since 9/11. So, where’s the money going? Miles points out that there have been expansions in nearly every existing area of military funding, and that roughly half of the Biden military budget request is “immediately going back out the door to the corporations who get rich by siphoning your and my tax dollars through the Pentagon.” It’s part of an ongoing project of military expansion, in which allotting ever-increasing sums to weapons production and procurement has become the norm, as Petersen-Smith outlines.
The gargantuan military budget allows the U.S. to maintain its sprawling militarized global presence, with “counterterror” operations in 85 countries and 750 bases around the world.
The Pentagon budget increase comes despite the U.S. fully withdrawing troops from Afghanistan in 2021. As Miles put it, “For the first time in history, we’ve ended wars and not had any peace dividend.”
Ballooning Pentagon budgets mark an explicit commitment to funding violence and death.
Ballooning Pentagon budgets mark an explicit commitment to funding violence and death, for a number of reasons: Not only does this approach funnel money toward war and imperialism, and suck money away from life-affirming priorities, it also exacerbates the climate crisis. The Pentagon is the world’s largest institutional emitter of greenhouse gases, Miles noted, and “the more money you give them, the more they will continue to contribute to climate change. We cannot talk about the climate crisis and the need to tackle it without talking about the Pentagon.”
However, Republican Congress members are doubling down on their push for even higher military spending, at a time when they’re demanding devastating cuts to life-sustaining programs. At hearings last week, as military leaders testified in support of Biden’s “defense” budget, House Armed Services Committee Chairman Mike Rogers claimed the Army will “struggle” as a result of the budget amount, while Strategic Forces Subcommittee Chairman Doug Lamborn questioned why the military is “settling for President Biden’s limited budget request” for missile defense. These statements echo many Republican sentiments: Rep. Ken Calvert, who chairs the House Appropriations Committee’s defense panel, decried the president for “prioritizing misguided domestic spending … over our warfighting needs,” and Sen. Roger Wicker (the top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee) tweeted that the astronomical military budget is “woefully inadequate.”
In addition to claiming that Biden’s Pentagon funding falls short, some Republicans have demanded more funding for other programs that fuel racist state violence, particularly the Border Patrol, which systematically inflicts harm on migrants. Last week, at a House Committee on Homeland Security hearing, Chairman Mark Green declared, “This [budget] proposal is an insult to every American.” Yet Biden’s 2024 request actually increases funding for U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), bringing that budget to nearly $25 billion. Biden’s request includes hiring more Border Patrol agents and increases border technology funding, in effect continuing the construction of a “technological wall,” as Truthout reporter Candice Bernd has covered. Biden has, in fact, positioned himself as supporting more Border Patrol funding than “MAGA Republicans.”
All of this funding expands an inherently violent system of policing and control. As Cynthia Garcia wrote for Truthout, “As long as … agencies like ICE and CBP exist, immigrants, particularly Black and Brown immigrants, will continue to die.”
Republican Congress members are doubling down on their push for even higher military spending, at a time when they’re demanding devastating cuts to life-sustaining programs.
On the issue of policing more broadly, amid the budget battles, the Biden administration and Republicans are each vying to be considered more in favor of “funding the police.” Attempting to distance himself even further from movements for racial justice and liberation, Biden has argued that Republicans are trying to “defund” police by opposing his budget request, which devotes significant federal spending to putting more cops on the streets. The request proposes to continue funding the so-called Safer America Plan, which would deploy 100,000 additional police in communities. The president’s budget would also allocate $2.9 billion for US attorneys, including 130 new staff for “violent crime” prosecution. These federal-level funding expansions are depicted as efforts to address violence in communities around the U.S., although, as we witness with horrifying regularity, police themselves perpetrate violence against BIPOC communities every day.
When I asked Alex Vitale, author of The End of Policing, for his thoughts on the policing portion of Biden’s budget request, he compared it to Donald Trump’s 2019 reelection proposal, “Operation Relentless Pursuit,” which blamed violence in communities on gangs and drug cartels instead of acknowledging its social roots. The Trump administration’s aim was to “lift up crime as the root of all social problems and offer policing and incarceration as the only possible solution,” Vitale said. “In the process, it erased the role of growing economic inequality, racial discrimination and governmental disinvestment at all levels. This redefining of the so-called ‘urban problem’ was at the center of Trump’s politics of austerity, backed up by ever more-intensive policing and mass incarceration — essentially the same program being put forward by Biden.”
Although police are largely funded at the local level, federal funds have played a critical role in beefing up departments and giving them more tools for harm. Vitale pointed out that Biden has been supporting Homeland Security grants that “directly purchase military hardware for local police,” and noted that the president “has done nothing to restrict police access to military hardware through the notorious 1033 weapons transfer program,” in which the Pentagon gives military equipment to local police departments. Federal spending has spurred the growth of the specialized police units that often perpetrate the most gruesome abuses. Funds from the federal government have “just given us more SWAT teams, more corrupt Gun Trace Task Forces, more violent SCORPION units and a lot of hollow feel-good rhetoric about community policing,” Vitale told me.
Indeed, Biden claims the funds for increased policing will go toward “accountable, community-oriented policing” — but “community-oriented policing” is a well-worn euphemism for simply putting more cops on the street in BIPOC communities and attempting to enlist neighbors in policing each other, as Victoria Law and I have written.
We must reject a false choice between Biden’s bad proposals and Republicans’ worse ones.
“Community policing rests on the core tenet that its goal is to get the community to bring its problems to the police so that they can ‘solve’ them,” Vitale said. But, of course, police can’t solve those problems; they actually contribute to them. Thus, we’re stuck in a cycle where the federal government throws resources at “community police” — who surveil, harass, brutalize, arrest and incarcerate community members — instead of funding “the tools that would actually solve the problems facing communities, such as mental health services, stable housing, employment and income support, addiction treatment, improved schools, or high-quality youth programs,” Vitale said.
Miles pointed out a similar phenomenon in the realm of foreign policy: “When all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail,” he said. “When you have — year after year, decade after decade — a dramatic imbalance of investment between the military and any other tool of foreign policy, the U.S. military is going to be the tool of first, second, third, and last resort … even when problems have no military ‘solution.’ That means that people die. That means that people suffer.”
When it comes to both military spending and federal funds for policing (including immigration policing), we must reject a false choice between Biden’s bad proposals and Republicans’ worse ones. We can directly challenge both military spending and police spending – and recognize them as interlinked forms of racist, classist, ableist, heteropatriarchal violence – no matter who is advocating that funding. We can demand “an end to both domestic and global warfare waged by the US – from police killings in our neighborhoods, to drone strikes abroad,” as Dissenters, a youth-led organization working against militarism and policing, describes in its Points of Unity statement.
Instead of limiting our choices to death and more death, let’s follow Mariame Kaba’s example and ask, “What can we imagine for ourselves and the world?”
As budget battles crescendo this spring, we can support life-affirming priorities like health care, education, climate justice, housing and child care. The National Priorities Project’s “Trade-Offs” tool offers a glimpse of how military dollars could be reinvested in other choices, dollar for dollar, from nurses and public housing to vaccines and elementary school teachers to solar power and living-wage jobs.
It’s time to acknowledge once and for all that state violence cannot create safety.
And although most funding for the police is handled at the local level, it’s still important to strategize about how federal funding could be redirected away from policing and toward real safety efforts. Vitale suggests looking toward the BREATHE Act, proposed by the Electoral Justice Project of the Movement for Black Lives, which would divest federal monies from incarceration and police and funnel them toward programs that have been shown to actually address violence, from nonpolice responses to mental health crises, to police-free restorative and transformative justice programs, to long-term supportive housing and more.
At every level, we must also uplift community efforts to build safety without police or the military: Interrupting Criminalization’s projectOne Million Experiments, the resource hub TransformHarm, and Truthout’s Road to Abolition series offer some ideas.
Finally, as we think about federal mechanisms of violence that masquerade as protecting “safety,” we must recognize that the draconian attacks on trans health care, abortion and education are some of the core threats to safety in the U.S. today. Doing all we can to confront these attacks, and protect those targeted by them, is true antiviolence work.
It’s time to acknowledge once and for all that state violence cannot create safety.
Maya Schenwar is Truthout‘s editor-at-large and board president. She is the co-author of Prison by Any Other Name: The Harmful Consequences of Popular Reforms; author of Locked Down, Locked Out: Why Prison Doesn’t Work and How We Can Do Better; and co-editor of the Truthout anthology Who Do You Serve, Who Do You Protect? Police Violence and Resistance in the United States. In addition to Truthout, Maya’s work has appeared in many publications including The New York Times, The Guardian, NBC News and The Nation, and she has appeared on Democracy Now!, MSNBC, C-SPAN, NPR, and other television and radio programs. Maya lives in Chicago.