Debt Ceiling? America’s Enormous Military Budget Enables Worldwide Intervention


While the Republicans and Democrats do a slow tango to lift the debt ceiling to avoid crippling our economy, they agree on taking one step together. They are lockstep in supporting the military budget. A few politicians from both parties raise a tepid voice of caution to avoid excessive and loosely supervised spending. Nevertheless, for over a hundred years, the military budget has been sacrosanct to Republicans and Democrats.

The Biden Administration and Congress carry on that tradition in the fiscal year 2023 National Defense Strategy Budget.It is an increase of $69.2 billion over the FY 2022 budget and $25 billion above President Biden’s budget request

Nevertheless, Deputy Secretary of Defense Dr. Kathleen Hicks’ proudly defended the military budget at the Reagan Institute. It is fitting that Hicks spoke in praise of President Reagan, whose military budget was above 6 percent of the nation’s GDP (gross domestic product) in each of his budgets. It has never been that high since he left office. 

The military is the golden goose that lays golden eggs for arms suppliers. According to the non-partisan SIPRI (Stockholm International Peace Research Institute), five American companies (Lockheed Martin, Boeing, Northrop Grumman, Raytheon, and General Dynamics) accounted for 35 percent of the top 100 arms sales in 2018. The total arms sales of all US companies represented 59 percent of arms sales. For the last two decades, the American military-industrial sector accounted for more than 30 percent of the world’s military spending.

However, for most citizens, funding the military is like having a knight protect your castle from being attacked. President Dwight Eisenhower, the supreme American knight from WW II, was one the few who voiced concerns about unrestrained support for military funding. 

During his Farewell Address in January 1961, he said, “we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence by the military-industrial complex,” adding that it could lead to the disastrous rise of misplaced power. During that same speech, Ike linked it to the dangers of massive spending, especially deficit spending. Eisenhower should have been concerned about military costs because they gobbled up 9 percent in his last two budgets. 

Since Reagan left office, the military budget has not exceeded 5 percent of our GDP, and it has been under 4 percent for most years. So Biden has a way of catching up with Reagan’s appetite even though his Fiscal Year 23 request was an 8 percent increase over the 2022 request.

Raising money to defend our nation is far easier than fighting someone else’s war. Perhaps that’s why Harry Truman got rid of the War Department, which had been a cabinet post since George Washington. Instead, he created the Department of Defense, using the excuse that he wanted to include the Navy and the Army under one administrative roof. 
They could have saved a lot of stationery and kept the old name. But Department of Defense has a better image than the Department of War. 

President Reagan justified his defense budget, saying it would “preserve a free way of life in a sometimes-dangerous world.” President Biden’s State of the Union address tapped into that feeling of keeping America safe in a dangerous world when he said, “Modernizing our military to safeguard stability and deter aggression. Today, we’re in the strongest position in decades to compete with China or anyone else in the world.”

Still, some members from both parties question if the spigot of money flowing to the military should be turned down a bit. From the Democratic side of the aisle, Bernie Sanders is the most vociferous critic of a wasteful military budget. Sanders refused to vote for Biden’s fiscal year 2023 National Defense Strategy Act (NDSA).

He explained why he voted no on his Senate website: “the Department of Defense continues to have massive fraud and cost overruns year after year and is the only major government agency not to complete an independent audit.” The Pentagon failed their last audit in 2022, unable to account for more than 60 percent of its assets. Echoing Eisenhower’s warning, Sanders added that historic national “concerns about the deficit and national debt seem to melt away under the influence of the powerful Military Industrial Complex.”

Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) joined Sanders as one of six Senate Democrats voting against Biden’s NDSA. The other Senate Democrats voting no were Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), Cory Booker (D-N.J), Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), and Ron Wyden (D-Ore.). Markey highlighted the group’s objection to the billions more that Congress has invested in the military than it has spent in “addressing many of the biggest security concerns facing the American people — such as climate change, the opioid epidemic, poverty, hunger, and disease.”

Five Senate Republicans joined the Democrats in voting no, Rand Paul (R-Ky.), Mike Lee (R-Utah), Josh Hawley (R-Mo.), Mike Braun (R-Ind.), and Cynthia Lummis (R-Wyo.).
In the House, NDSA passed overwhelmingly, with 39 Democrats and 62 Republicans voting against it. The core of opposition within each party sprung from the Democrats’ Progressive Caucus and the Republican’s Freedom Caucus. 

Although more Republicans than Democrats voted against providing additional money for the military, their opposition stemmed from their cultural war against liberal social changes. Kevin McCarthy told Fox News his priority was to “eliminate all the money spent on ‘wokeism.’ Eliminate all the money that they’re [spending in] trying to find different fuels, and they’re worried about the environment.”

His remarks accurately reflect those of the Freedom House Caucus members and reactionary Republicans. For example, Rep. Jim Banks, a member of the Armed Services Committee, said he supported defunding programs like diversity and inclusion training. Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Ala.), chair of that committee, told the Hill, “We’re going to cut money that’s being spent on wokeism; we’re going to cut legacy programs.”

Nevertheless, there are Republicans and conservatives who are more concerned about fiscal policy than defunding environmental and racial justice programs. Justin Logan, a director at the libertarian Cato Institute, said talk around slashing “woke” programs are more about scoring political points than enacting real budget change. Eliminating those woke programs would be a drop in the bucket.

Logan put his finger on the fundamental problem, “the Pentagon has had extremely ambitious goals for the United States, and pursuing those goals is extremely expensive.” Moreover, the goals go way beyond the Constitution’s Preamble, which limited the use of the military “…to provide for the common defense.”  

America, since WWII, has come to define our “common” interest in defense to apply worldwide — to any nation presenting a threat to us. That threat may be a government, even a democracy, deemed anticapitalistic or a country threatening our foreign investments. 

We often do not send in the American military but encourage others to toss out a government using our equipment. However, America has become the single most significant global military footprint. We have roughly 750 US foreign military bases spread across 80 nations. Russia has about three dozen bases, and China has just five bases. In addition, we had around 173,000 troops deployed in 159 countries as of 2020.

Examples abound of American intervention to install governments to our liking. The two that stand out are the overthrow of Chile’s elected President Salvador Allende, a self-declared Marxist, in favor of a military junta in 1973, and the 1953 Iranian coup d’état which ended the democratically elected Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh in favor of restoring monarchical rule.

In addition, an academic study showed that America participated in at least 81 overt and covert known interventions in foreign elections during the period 1946–2000.
Domestically, influencing Congress’s budget is critical to preserving our military supply business. The military industry spent over $101 million lobbying Congress in the three months before the NDSA was passed. During the 2022 midterm election cycle, the industry contributed an additional $17.5 million directly to the campaigns of Congress members. 

As a result, defense contractors should receive the same portion of the money allocated to the Department of Defense that contractors received from 2001 to 2020. According to the Brown University Costs of War Project, anywhere from one-third to half of the $816 billion that Congress approved and President Biden signed off on will go to military contractors.  

Between the influence of these contractors on Congress and the widespread fear of having our freedom taken from us by Russia, China, Iran, and others, trimming the Defense Budget is more of a dream than a reality. To make that dream a reality, one of the parties needs to focus on the actual costs of maintaining a military industry that is neither affordable nor practical.

Dan Caldwell, a vice president at the conservative Koch-funded organization Stand Together, said the “seemingly unstoppable growth in the defense budget is not tied to a realistic strategy,”  Caldwell further told a Vox journalist that “The only way that you can realistically reduce defense spending is by effectively changing America’s grand strategy.”

Congress asked the Congressional Budget Office in 2021 to provide its members with ways of shifting that grand strategy by lowering the Department of Defense while maintaining a solid defense. The CBO provided a report with three broad options for reconfiguring the military. They proposed that the Department of Defense funding could be reduced by $1 trillion (in 2022 dollars), or 14 percent, over the next ten years. So far, there has not been a push by Congress to hold public hearings on its suggestions.

Until Congressional members work together to alter the military’s use, we will continue to allocate money to build more expensive equipment not to defend our nation’s boundaries but to shape politics worldwide. At some point, the US must decide to limit its commitments. Failing to do so will draw us into protracted conflicts that have limited importance for protecting our democracy or those elsewhere. 

This article first appeared in The Medium and the author’s website.

Nick Licata
Nick Licata
Nick Licata, was a 5 term Seattle City Councilmember, named progressive municipal official of the year by The Nation, and is founding board chair of Local Progress, a national network of 1,000 progressive municipal officials. Author of Becoming a Citizen Activist. Subscribe to Licata’s newsletter Urban Politics


  1. I think this is a courageous editorial, Nick — until we begin to talk (even talk!) about the possibility of reducing our out-of-control defense budget–we’ll never make real progress toward making American lives better. Reading a Washington Post article about elderly people still paying off student lives, for example, was heartbreaking. There are ways to reach across ideological divides to create a defense budget that is realistic in its goals, doesn’t cut off our fingertips, and ensures that we are able to continue funding health care, education, access to infrastructure — the things Americans use to take for granted.

  2. I meant to write, of course …. Reading a Washington Post article about elderly people still paying off student LOANS, for example, was heartbreaking.


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