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Congress fiddles while the US burns, floods, and ails

It is past time for Congress to redirect Pentagon spending to the security threats of the 21st century.

This piece was originally published in The Hill.

In late June of 1990, on a record 109 degree day, the Painted Cave Fire ravaged my hometown of Santa Barbara, Calif. Fueled by drought and relentlessly hot and dry Santa Ana winds, the fire took only two hours to destroy 567 homes and other structures and kill one person. My family’s home was spared, but the threat of the fast-moving fire sent them fleeing by car with our dog and whatever they could grab in a few frantic minutes.

Though the devastation was shocking and unprecedented at the time, the Painted Cave Fire is almost quaint compared to the destruction and death of the Western wildfires today. This year in California alone, there have been 28 major fires that have burned over 4.1 million acres, destroyed more than 8,687 structures, and left 31 people dead.

In the same timeframe, the Southern and Eastern U.S. coasts have been battered by storms and flooding from nine hurricanes that have hit the United States so far this season — already tying the record number set in 2005. To date the Atlantic has spawned 23 named storms — nearly double the number expected in an average year. The continually warming ocean waters, rapid ramping up of wind speeds, slower storm movement and heavier rains have resulted in damage and flooding that has impacted an unbelievable 90 percent of the coastline along the Gulf and East coasts.

As if all of that weren’t enough, the COVID-19 pandemic has killed over 210,000 Americans and sickened more than 7.4 million including President Trump. Current Labor Department statistics show that 8.4 percent of Americans — or 26 million people — are unemployed, as the economic impact of the pandemic takes its toll. With colder temperatures just around the corner, disorganized federal leadership, refusal by some to follow basic mask and social distancing guidelines based on the president’s own statements, and no widely available vaccine expected until the middle of 2021, there is every expectation that things are going to get a lot worse before it gets better.

These disasters present a clear and present danger to the health, safety, and well-being of millions of Americans. If the trend of ever-escalating disasters is any indication of the future of our nation’s security, we must drastically reprioritize our nation’s national security spending to account for protecting American’s everyday needs.

Since 9/11, the U.S. has spent over $6 trillion on seemingly endless wars around the globe, and virtually no one would argue that we are any safer as a result. Year after year, Congress has abdicated it’s fiscal responsibility and handed the purse strings to defense contractors who have been grotesquely enriched by unchecked military spending. Relying on the Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF), enacted in the days after 9/11, Congress has increased the Pentagon’s annual budget from $290 billion in 2000 to $740 billion in 2020 — a whopping 155 percent increase.

Possibly more troubling, the Washington Post reports that nearly one third of the CARES Act COVID-19 relief package went to military contractors, which used the money, “mostly for projects that have little to do with the coronavirus response,” including $80 million to bail out an aircraft parts business and $183 million to maintain the shipbuilding industry. Coming on the heels of failed audits, this misuse of taxpayer dollars is just one more example of the need for major Pentagon spending reform.

Groups as disparate as the Charles Koch Institute and the Poor People’s Campaign agree that reducing wasteful military spending is imperative to our national security. Furthermore, according to polling done by Data for Progress, 56 percent of American voters — including 50 percent of Republicans — support the effort led by Reps. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) and Mark Pocan (D-Wis.) and Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Ed Markey (D-Mass.), and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) to reduce defense spending by a modest 10 percent and redirect those funds towards needs such as pandemic response, education, health care and housing.

Lee was explicit in her comments supporting the legislation, “We cannot continue to prioritize funding for a department known for its waste, fraud, abuse, and failure to pass an audit — especially when the money to ‘protect national security’ is failing to protect our most vulnerable citizens.”

Failing to adequately prepare for and address disasters that have caused unprecedented environmental and property damage, resulted in more American deaths than the last five wars we fought combined, and left millions on the brink of financial ruin is both unconscionable and irresponsible.

It is time we recognize these events as the national security threats that they are and demand that Congress stop rubber stamping bloated and wasteful Pentagon spending and focus on the health and safety of the American people.

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