By David Sirota
Political journalist, best-selling author and syndicated newspaper columnist
The last time America found itself in a budget debate pitting domestic priorities against war expenditures, Richard Nixon was in the White House and David Obey was the youngest member of Congress – an anti-war liberal whose insurgent campaign unexpectedly vaulted him into the House seat vacated by the hawkish president’s new defense secretary. In those dark days, it was the guns of Vietnam and the Cold War versus the butter of the Great Society and the War on Poverty – and despite Obey’s protests, guns won the day.
“President Nixon issued a call to counterrevolution at home,” summed up Time magazine in 1973, noting that while the Republican administration was increasing the Pentagon budget, it was proposing the “abolition or deep cutting of more than 100 federal grant programs that have benefited the unemployed, students, farmers, veterans, small businessmen, the mentally ill and tenants in federally aided housing.”
The resulting body bags and cuts to homeland investment were, of course, devastating – which is why it is fitting that Obey is choosing to end his congressional tenure where he started it: on the side of butter in a 21st century reprisal of the ancient debate.
Over the last decade, Obey has been methodically campaigning against the war in Iraq and the endless Afghanistan occupation, saying their rationales are weak, their prosecution inept and their deficit-financed costs unaffordable in the face of unmet domestic needs. For years, he valiantly has championed bills to legislate withdrawal timetables and war surtaxes. Now, with President Obama pushing a plan to boost Afghan war funding at the potential expense of economic aid at home, Obey has replaced the scalpel strokes of proactive legislation with the blunt force of filibuster.
According to Politico, Obey last week “drew a direct link between war funding and progress on domestic priorities” with his announcement that as Appropriations Committee chairman, he will “withhold action on the war funds until there (is) some resolution on a major economic relief bill extending jobless benefits.”
Like clockwork, the move was met with hypocritical hysteria. The same Republican Party that bewails deficits responded with a letter asking Defense Secretary Robert Gates to champion the deficit-exploding war-funding bill in order to avoid “undermining” the military. Gates, despite just having called for defense spending cuts, obediently complied. “Gates to Congress: Stalling on War Funding Will Hurt U.S. Troops,” read the Fox News headline after he publicly echoed the GOP demands.
The Nation’s Chris Hayes has written that such tripe boils down to “You’re either with the war or you are against the troops” – and as the bloated Pentagon budget proves, that message has thwarted Obey for most of his life.
Until, perhaps, now.
Yes, just as Obey prepares to retire, there are signs that his crusade is winning converts. For instance, Oklahoma Republican Sen. Tom Coburn is using his position on President Obama’s deficit commission to focus attention on Pentagon profligacy. Similarly, Politico reports that “key tea party players (are) expressing a willingness to put the Pentagon budget on the chopping block.”
Whether or not the cacophony stops the Pentagon’s latest blank check is less important than Obey finally having rekindled an honest discussion about guns and butter. In a 41-year career of venerable accomplishments, that is the most profound achievement of all.
David Sirota is a former spokesperson for the House Appropriations Committee. He is the bestselling author of the books “Hostile Takeover” (2006) and “The Uprising” (2008). E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @davidsirota. This is his latest column for Creators Syndicate.
Posted June 26, 2010 at 3:00 pm, in From David Sirota