Masks Over Missiles: New Rules for Pentagon Funding

Rep. Ro Khanna calls for funding public health over nuclear weapons

by Joe Cirincione and Zack Brown, originally published in The National Interest. Listen to the whole episode on Press the Button.

Representative Ro Khanna (D-CA) recently laid down some new rules for the Pentagon budget: Fund public health over weapons; freeze defense programs at current levels; resist Senate pressure to cave on House priorities; and develop a “modern, expansive definition of national security that includes the risk of pandemics and climate change.”

High on his list of possible cuts are the massive increases for new nuclear weapons proposed by President Donald Trump, including a freeze on the new intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM). He will also press for sound national security policies to be included in the annual Pentagon spending bill and for the House leadership to defend these priorities.

“One place we’re looking is to limit the modernization of ICBMs,” he said in an interview on the national security podcast, Press The Button. Instead, Khanna wants Congress to “put that money into coronavirus research, or vaccine research, or developing manufacturing capacity for masks. I think those types of red lines are not only possible but would be politically very popular.”

Khanna’s views carry great weight with his colleagues and within national security circles. Serving his second term in the House, he is the first vice-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, a member of the House Armed Services Committee, and was co-chair for Sen. Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign.

His opposition to the new missile comes just weeks after the US Air Force announced it seeks to accelerate the missile program marked by cost overruns and a controversial bidding process that left Northrop Grumman as the sole contractor. The new missile could cost as much as $150 billion. Air Force program managers are speeding “to get things awarded on contract as quickly as possible,” noted budget expert Todd Harrison, “so that becomes harder to reverse if there’s a new administration.”

Khanna called the land-based leg of the nuclear triad “one of the greatest threats of nuclear war,” noting that former Secretary of Defense James Mattis once testified to their “false alarm danger.” He said he is working with another former defense secretary, William Perry, who has termed these missiles "some of the most dangerous weapons in the world,” and called for their phase-out.
Khanna’s new rules could thwart the furious lobbying by defense contractors for billions of dollars in the next COVID aid package. He says these funds should be put into more critical areas and that defense contractors should get “not a dime.”
“We should not be increasing funding for industries that don’t need it, that aren’t critical to coronavirus, that aren’t critical to our national security, that are just going to the defense industrial base,” Khanna said. “It’s just not the priority right now.”
Khanna picked up some heavyweight support for this position when Rep. Adam Smith (D.-WA), the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, announced last Wednesday that he, too, was opposed to new funds for defense contractors.
“The defense [budget] last year was $738 billion,” said Smith. “I’m not saying that there aren’t needs within the Department of Defense, I’m saying they have a lot of money and ought to spend that money to meet those needs.” A letter by 62 national organizations to the House leadership last week also opposed any additional funds to the Pentagon this year.
This opposition by a leader of the Progressive Caucus and by the highest-ranking national security Democrat in Congress, moreover, comes amid growing calls for a fundamental rethink of US national security in response to the pandemic.
“There is a disconnect between what average people feel as threats to their security and what the Beltway does,” said Khanna, “I don't dismiss traditional challenges. Obviously you have Russian aggression in Ukraine and Georgia, and Russian election interference. Obviously, you have the rise of China authoritarian capitalism and their foray into Africa and their potential disruption of the navigation of the seas.”
Khanna said his constituents understand the challenges posed by Russia and China, but they want the country to balance these priorities against the need to prepare for future pandemics, the effects of climate change and the risks posed by cyberattacks and emerging technologies.
For years, the former threats have dominated American national security strategy - and federal spending priorities. “We have a $740 billion Pentagon budget,” Khanna said. “That’s $130 billion more than where Obama had it. To put that into context, that $130 billion could triple the NIH budget” and boost funds for the CDC and FEMA.
“In other words, if Trump had put that money into our public health, we would not have had this pandemic to the extent that we have,” he continued. “We would have had testing earlier. We possibly could have had a faster track to a cure or to a vaccine.”
Concern over this programmatic imbalance could also dog passage of the upcoming National Defense Authorization Act. Khanna said that progressives are likely to withhold support if the bill does not “show very compelling reasons” spending increases are tied directly to fighting the coronavirus pandemic. Asked if he thought moderate Democrats could join with Republicans to force the bill through the House, Khanna replied that he was “not dismissing” the possibility but warned that they would be “writing off a lot of the progressive base and the independent base.”
Khanna says that he has learned from last year, when all the measures passed by the House were stripped out in conference with the Republican-controlled Senate. “Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on us. We’re not going to pass a bill without an iron commitment that they're going to keep some of those top priorities.” Included in his list are prohibitions for any unauthorized war with North Korea and with Iran, both passed last year by the House and stripped by the Senate.
Khanna hopes the House will serve as a proving ground for new ideas about the relationship between military spending and the nation’s safety. “We need to have a new approach to national security in the 21st century,” he said. “We need people in our generation who are not derivative thinkers, recycling what they learned from the Cold War, but who are willing to be original.”
“I don't underestimate the status quo,” Khanna concluded. “We can be optimistic and then end up defaulting to the same thinking and same people. But I'm hopeful that this crisis really will make us re-examine some of these questions.”
“That’s our challenge.”
The complete interview with Rep. Ro Khanna is available at Press The Button
Joe Cirincione is the president of Ploughshares Fund, a global security foundation that supports initiatives to reduce and eventually eliminate the dangers posed by nuclear weapons. Zack Brown is a policy associate at Ploughshares Fund.
Photo: Rep. Ro Khanna, US Representative from California's 17th congressional district. Photo by Alex Spire.