The budget for the Pentagon should be reduced by at least $200 billion annually, freeing up $2 trillion or more over the next decade for domestic and human needs priorities, argue Public Citizen and the more than 20 other groups that make up the Put People Over the Pentagon coalition.

The Democrats who would be president will begin debating this week and the project is certain to be chaotic. Over two nights, more than two dozen moderators and candidates will be jostling for attention. The candidates will make scores of promises. They'll outline sweeping proposals to save the planet, provide medical care as a right, and make college education affordable for all Americans. The promising will, undoubtedly, be interrupted by questions about "the price tag" for the proposals.

Though Republican contenders are allowed to talk up tax cuts for the rich and corporate welfare schemes with scant consideration given to the budget-busting consequences, Democrats are invariably confronted with the query: "How are you going to pay for it?"

Thankfully, there's an easy answer to THAT question: Cut the phantasmagorical Department of Defense budget and use the money to meet domestic needs.

The Pentagon budget is corpulent enough to shed resources for cash-starved domestic programs — and for necessary new initiatives.

When the president wanted billions of dollars to build a vanity wall on the Mexican border, he declared a fake emergency and dipped his hand deep into the Department of Defense cookie jar.

Trump's grab for Pentagon cash was abusive, and there is still plenty of wrangling with regard to his approach. But responsible contenders for the presidency should be prepared to speak about the fiscally responsible dialing down of the military-industrial complex in order to free up funds for domestic programs. This goes for members of both parties, who would do well to recognize, as Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., did several years ago, that there are sound arguments for a “draw-down and restructuring of the Department of Defense.”

But the Democrats who propose to replace Trump have a special duty to address the bloated Pentagon budget. For too many years, as Congressional Progressive Caucus Co-chairs Mark Pocan, D-Town of Vermont, and Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., have noted, there has been an imbalance in budget priorities where the military-industrial complex has gotten blank checks while working Americans have gotten austerity. This didn't start with Trump, but it should end with his defeat.

If Democratic presidential contenders are serious about cleaning up the mess that this president has made — and about cleaning up the mess that made this presidency possible — they're going to need to outline a better budgetary balance as the answer to questions about how to pay for Medicare-for-all, a Green New Deal and the expansion of Social Security.

Is it hard to find places to cut military spending? No.

Last year, the Congressional Budget Office outlined prospects for responsible cuts in Defense Department expenditures. In addition to strategies for slashing tens of billions in spending for obsolete, dysfunctional and unnecessary weapons systems, the CBO report reviewed a proposal to "cut the defense budget by 10 percent compared to what it has currently planned."

"That option," the Federal News Service reported, "would save the United States $591 billion over 10 years."

A 10 percent cut in Pentagon spending might seem like a lot. But buried in the CBO report is this line: "Despite the reduced military capacity under this option, the United States would remain the world’s preeminent military power. Even in 2022, when funding would be lowest under this option in both nominal and inflation-adjusted terms, it would be nearly double the combined military spending of China and Russia in 2017."

Could Pentagon cuts go even deeper? Public Citizen and the more than 20 other groups that make up the Put People Over the Pentagon coalition say "yes."

They made the case in a letter sent last month to the candidates that “it’s time to stop misdirecting hundreds of billions of dollars away from domestic and human needs to pad unnecessary budget lines for endless wars, failed weapons and the Pentagon’s corporate handouts. Doing so will make our country stronger and more just.”

The groups make a compelling argument that:

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● Pentagon spending should be reduced by at least $200 billion annually, freeing up $2 trillion or more over the next decade for domestic and human needs priorities.

● The United States should never again go to war without congressional authorization, and Congress should not authorize military action without identifying revenue to pay for current and future costs, including taking care of injured veterans.

● By adhering to our values and promoting international cooperation, we can prevent war, address the underlying causes of conflict, and meet humanitarian imperatives.

So let's start there. Moderators should ask the candidates if they agree with the position taken by groups that many of them have worked with over the years. (In addition to Public Citizen, signers of the letter include, Center for Popular Democracy, Code Pink, Credo Action, Daily Kos, Demand Progress, Democracy for America, Friends Committee on National Legislation, Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace, Indivisible, Just Foreign Policy,, National Priorities Project, Peace Action, RootsAction, Social Security Works, United We Dream, Win Without War, Women’s Action for New Directions and World Beyond War.)

If any candidates answer "yes," listen up, because they've got the right answer not just to this particular question but to that inevitable "How are you going to pay for it?" query.

John Nichols is associate editor of The Capital Times. and @NicholsUprising. 

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