AOC Follows Pelosi, Trump’s Lead By Voting Big Bucks For Military

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Last Thursday, the House of Representatives passed legislation that will, once signed into law, set one of the highest caps ever on the discretionary budget for the Pentagon and related programs. The Democratic Party that now controls the House voted by a vast majority in favor of the bill, and, remarkably, so did Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Rashida Tlaib.

Pelosi and AOC after a meeting on July 26. “We had a very positive conversation about our districts and how we represent our country and how we need to meet the needs, the diversity of America and the challenges we face in terms of issues and how immigration and people are respected," Pelosi said.

In recent news, we learn that Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez joined 218 other Democrats to approve a budget bill that includes a record amount of military spending for the next two years. Given that AOC has become a symbol of the opposition to Trump and his administration, this surely comes as a surprise. Rashida Tlaib, another outspoken leftist and member of the Democratic Socialists of America, also voted for the bill. 

At first glance, the entire scenario is a bit of a head scratcher. Approved on July 25, with a vote of 284-149 in the House of Representatives, the “Bipartisan Budget Act of 2019” passed with the overwhelming support of House Democrats, only 16 of whom voted against the bill. The Republican side was mostly opposed (with 132 no votes and 65 yes votes). This in spite of the fact that in the lead-up to the vote President Trump urged his party to back the measure, tweeting: “House Republicans should support the TWO YEAR BUDGET AGREEMENT which greatly helps our Military and our Vets. I am totally with you.” 

One might wonder, if the majority of Republicans were not compelled by their party leader’s cajoling (primarily citing, of course, their rejection of any further increase of the debt), why did the Democrats vote almost unanimously for this bill? The answer is simple: Because it was a deal brokered by Nancy Pelosi, Speaker of the House and quintessential representative of the Democratic Party establishment. In collaboration with Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, Pelosi took charge of the project and successfully rallied her troops around it, including some of the most progressive party members. 

In an effort to avoid automatic budget cuts (sequestration) and another government shutdown, Pelosi managed an agreement that, in her own words, meets the needs of Americans by “investing in middle class priorities that advance the health, financial security and well-being of the American people and enhancing our national security” and by “safeguarding the full faith and credit of the United States of America by achieving a lifting of the debt limit until July 31, 2021.” What’s not to love? 

The $2.7 trillion budget includes more money for domestic spending as well as more money for the military, increasing defense and non-defense expenses by $22 and $27 billion, or 3 and 4% hikes, respectively, for fiscal year 2020. And like any good compromise between the two capitalist parties, this act presents a further expansion of the military as being in the interest of the people. Except in this case, the increase in the already massive military budget did not even require the full backing of the party that is traditionally more interested in national security; the Democrats did the job almost all on their own.

Ultimately, this bill allows both parties to avoid another government shutdown (and thus potentially political unrest) before and during the 2020 elections. While many Republicans polemicize all day long about the deficit, they too will benefit from the suspension of the debt ceiling and thereby averting the prospect of another government funding impasse in the middle of trying to hold on to the White House and battling the Democrats over congressional seats. 

Cynics will perhaps argue that AOC has to start being more of a “team player.” Judging from her recent photo ops with Pelosi, the appearance of unity is important, and AOC is playing along quite nicely. If those images of reconciliation are any indication, AOC and the rest of the “Squad” may soon temper their leftism in order not to be seen as too divisive. Regardless of Pelosi’s attacks on her and their differences on immigration, impeachment, etc., AOC will be expected to swear allegiance to the party establishment. After all, her team is the Democratic Party.

That said, AOC could have easily done what her fellow “Squad” members Ilhan Omar and Ayanna Pressley did by voting no. She could have very easily added her name to the few Democrats who refused to give in to Pelosi’s pressure. To her considerable credit, Omar made a statement, in which she explained her rejection of the bill:

I cannot in good conscience support a bill that continues to throw billions of dollars at endless wars and Pentagon contractors. In order to pursue peace and prosperity at home, we must not continue to destabilize entire countries, fuel migration crises, and put American troops at risk.

We must reduce Pentagon waste and reinvest that money into healthcare, education, housing, jobs, clean energy and infrastructure.

All of this is perfectly correct and consistent with Omar’s record of speaking out strongly against U.S. imperialism. However, there is an obvious contradiction here, which is that her own party has historically been a pillar of the very imperialist system she is criticizing. 

It is also noteworthy that neither AOC nor Rashida Tlaib, who also voted yes, offered a public statement. But then again, it is difficult to see how they could reasonably justify having supported a resolution that allots almost $1.5 trillion to the Pentagon and only $1.3 trillion to the entire rest of the government. Is this disappointing? That depends on one’s expectations and hopes regarding the group of newly elected “socialists” in Congress and regarding the Democrats in general. However, even AOC’s fans, especially in the DSA, would do well to stop and think about just what it means when one of the most left politicians in the Democratic Party has no problems signing on to a measure that directly contributes to the perpetuation and exacerbation of U.S. imperialism in the world. 

Thanks to this legislation, half of the country’s discretionary funds will once again be spent on defense. It is useful to remember that this amount is almost enough to completely eliminate poverty in the U.S., which has been estimated to cost 1.7 trillion. Also thanks to this legislation, the U.S. will further boost an apparatus that contributes more than anything else to the devastation of the global environment with its raw material consumption and its pollution and destruction of the natural world.

The Senate is expected to debate the bill in the coming days and pass it. President Trump is planning to sign it into law. It’s business as usual, and we can safely count on progressive Democrats to work with their Republican colleagues, or to even do their jobs for them, “in the service of the American people.” Nancy Pelosi is clearly able to get her party in line when it comes to guaranteeing the continued smooth operation of the capitalist state. 

“Democratic socialists” like AOC can make a lot of noise when they want to but have demonstrated on several occasions that they will fold under the pressure to comply with their party’s demands. Her and Tlaib’s yes votes illustrate that their opposition to Trump’s policies, while often brave and sharp, is inevitably subject to being reigned in by their own political party. Of course, turning a blind eye to U.S. militarism and imperialist domination is necessary to work within the Democratic Party, which is one of the reasons why imagining that the Democrats as the lesser of two evils can affect substantial social change reveals itself once again as a pipe dream. 

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Sonja Krieger

Sonja has been an editor and writer for Left Voice since 2016. She teaches college students and is an active AFT member.