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Exclusive: Bernie Sanders explains his plan to cut military spending

It doesn’t sound very workable.

Bernie Sanders in front of a Bernie sign.
Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) at a campaign rally.
Scott Olson/Getty Images

Sen. Bernie Sanders has long been a vocal critic of America’s high levels of military spending, but it’s not clear how far he’s willing to go to do anything about it if he becomes president.

He’d have options. He could veto a spending bill — something President Donald Trump threatened to do to get a southern border wall. Would a President Sanders refuse to sign a bipartisan bill that boosted defense spending? Would he shut down the government over it?

In an exclusive interview with Vox, Sanders wasn’t willing to go there.

“I’m saying I doubt that I would get that budget,” he said instead, arguing that Congress would reflect his executive budget. “We will present a thoughtful budget that meets the defense needs of this country without just simply supplying billions of dollars of unnecessary money to the military industrial complex.”

Sanders’s position on defense spending is clear: He wants the United States to stop spending money on unmerited wars. He says the government needs to stop lining the pockets of wealthy defense contractors. He wants to know why the Pentagon’s budget needs to be so big.

When Congress passed one of the biggest defense budgets in modern US history last year with overwhelming bipartisan support, authorizing $716 billion in spending in 2019, Sanders was one of 10 senators — along with fellow 2020 Democratic candidates Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand (NY), Kamala Harris (CA), and Elizabeth Warren (MA) — who voted against it. Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) voted in support.

“Democrats, for good reason, vehemently oppose almost everything Trump proposes, but when he asks for a huge increase in military spending, there are almost no voices in dissent,” Sanders wrote in the progressive magazine In These Times about the vote.

In that article, Sanders hints at the challenge he would face as president. Congress has long fallen into the same pattern; Democrats, in order to win more funding for domestic programs, have swallowed bigger and bigger defense budgets as a concession to Republicans.

Both Democrats and Republicans have billed the boost in defense funding as a push to rebuild the military. Spending on defense decreased under President Barack Obama both because the Iraq War was winding down and because of the sequester. Of course, there is real money a Sanders presidency, which promises to shrink U.S. involvement in wars, could make a dent in. The Overseas Contingency Fund, the Pentagon’s emergency fund which can be used for “a future event or circumstance that is possible but cannot be predicted with certainty,” and is outside of the base defense budget, for example makes up $69 billion for 2019. Both progressives and conservatives have raised concerns about excess OCO funding.

Sanders has been in Congress since 1991. It’s safe to assume he knows how this works. In our conversation, he presented an alternative — a scenario where a president’s budget, which is often thrown to the wind, would carry more weight than it has in recent years.

Here’s our exchange, lightly edited for clarity and length.

Bernie Sanders on how he would address defense spending as president

Tara Golshan

You have repeatedly voted against massive defense funding packages. There was bipartisan support for a substantial defense spending boost just last year. Would you as president refuse to sign spending packages like that?

Bernie Sanders

Well, I think you have a president right now who is a huge cheerleader for the military industrial complex. So what I would be prepared to do is to understand that we are now spending more than the next 10 next countries combined — we are spending over $700 billion a year. At the same time, you have veterans sleeping out on the streets, major crisis after major crisis in affordable housing, infrastructure. I think we have to get our priorities right, and our priorities should include not spending more than the 10 next nations on earth. As president, I would certainly look at a very different military budget.

I think a lot of the budget is pushed by the military industrial complex. You have a handful of military contractors where CEOs make outrageous levels of compensation. John McCain, the late John McCain, talked about massive cost overruns. You have the only agency in government that has not completed an independent audit. So there is a lot to be looked at.

My Republican colleagues talk a lot about fraud and waste when it comes to programs for working people, lower-income people. They don’t look so much at the Pentagon, and I think that’s a place to look.

Tara Golshan

When you say you would look differently at a military budget, when there is a bipartisan spending deal that boosts up defense, and it lands on your desk, you would …

Bernie Sanders

It doesn’t go quite like that. You have a president who makes that proposal. You have a president right now who says I want to increase military spending and you have Republicans who say that’s a great idea and, more or less; Democrats saying yeah, that’s a great idea, maybe we’ll play around the edges. But when I’m president, we’re not presenting that budget. We will present a thoughtful budget that meets the defense needs of this country without just simply supplying billions of dollars of unnecessary money to the military industrial complex.

I would be a president who says, you know what, I want you to justify these cost overruns. Why are we spending so much? So I think we can pare back on what our needs are and at the same time not spend more as the next 10 countries combined.

Tara Golshan

You think that’s how the budget process works? The president presents a budget, but oftentimes it’s what Congress can put together.

Bernie Sanders

Yeah. But right now the Congress is working off the president’s budget on military spending. Not all things — a lot of things ended up in the garbage can. But not this one — did it? Not this proposal. [Trump] led the effort as a cheerleader for more military spending, and unfortunately, a lot of Republicans and Democrats signed on.

Tara Golshan

You see it as disrupting this understanding that Republicans will get their increase in defense spending so Democrats get their increase in domestic spending — that’s what they can agree on.

Bernie Sanders

Fundamentally, why I am running for president is to get our priorities right. Our priorities are that we rebuild our infrastructure, that our kids have the ability to go to college regardless of income, that we address the crisis in affordable housing, and all the other crises — climate change, we have to deal with that, and it will take a lot of money. And we do not have to simply allow large defense contractors to become even wealthier.

Tara Golshan

So you are not saying you would refuse to sign a —

Bernie Sanders

I’m saying I doubt that I would get that budget. That’s the way it works; when the president says, “I want this,” then fine. [If] the president says, “Look, I want you to start — for the first time — to take a hard look at the military budget and tell me why you think you need all this money and try to pare it down, because we have other needs,” then it becomes a whole other process.

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