By Bryan Kim
“Do you have the CBO report on the bill?” he asked me. “Because there’s a lot of pressure from the other side not to spend more money.”
I was sitting down with Bill Kratz, the director of Sen. Dianne Feinstein‘s San Diego office, in my continuing efforts to procure support for the Suicide Prevention for America’s Veterans Act and the improvement of mental health services for veterans. In spite of his vociferous support for veteran mental health issues, he was very clear that in what he called the “current climate,” budgetary concerns would be paramount.
I had to admit that the bill had not yet been evaluated for its budget impact by the Congressional Budget Office. I reasoned that compared to the $1.7 trillion that Congress spent turning thousands of men and women into veterans by sending them into combat in Iraq and Afghanistan, the small cost of providing for their mental health care to prevent the suicide of 22 veterans a day would be simple to get legislative backing for.
As he talked, describing his frustrations with deficit-hawk Republicans and the pressure he and other Democrats were under, I felt an odd, out-of-body sensation. He was saying the national debt and deficit were important to voters, and all I could think about were the millions of people who supported reducing the deficit but couldn’t pick a program to cut except aid to other countries, which makes up about 1% of the total budgetary spending.
Though there is much support for a balanced budget, ask the voters what they think should be balanced out and no one can agree — if anything, many voters of both parties want us to spend more money on programs at the same time we reduce the deficit. This contradiction in the American people’s desire is mirrored in the hypocrisy of deficit-hawk politicians who talk about reducing the deficit while at the same rejecting revenue increases or funding increases in defense spending without a second thought.
It is a bipartisan problem that is best exemplified by the tank graveyard in Reno, Nevada: over 2,000 mothballed M-1 Abrams tanks that the army literally told Congress it didn’t need. In fact, the Pentagon told Congress they could save the American tax-payers $3 billion by not ordering the production of more tanks. But 172 members of the House (Republicans and Democrats both) wrote to Leon Panetta asking him to support their decision over the Pentagon’s in the name of holding onto industrial jobs in their districts. For example, House Arms Services Committee Chairman Rep. Buck McKeon (R-CA) claimed “he didn’t know tank-manufacturer General Dynamics had given him $56,000 in campaign contributions,” as he championed defense spending the Department of Defense specifically asked to cut.
You could also, for example, take their policy on costly foreign intervention. We just left a war in Iraq that cost over $1.7 trillion. It is here that the two-faced politicians of the country really make themselves known. Ask Sen. Marco Rubio and he’ll tell you “We can’t keep spending more money than we have.” Ask Rubio and he’ll also tell you, “I believe that we should not rule out and in fact conduct, to the extent they are effective, military action from the air against [ISIS] wherever they are located.” The money to go to the ends of the Earth will surely be funded by deficits since revenue increases are out of the question for Tea Party Republicans and moderate Democrats.
So this is why it’s infuriating to watch Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL) as he claimed June 11th that “we need to resist the temptation to create more entitlements, which is one of the reasons we are heading recklessly to fiscal crisis.” This is the same man who voted for both of Bush’s Tax Cuts in 2001 and 2003 along with the funding for the Iraq War. He forgets that services paid out to veterans are not entitlements: they are payment for services already rendered. He forgets that he and countless others in Congress supported the reckless deficit spending that sent those soldiers overseas. In doing so, they took it upon themselves to care for our soldiers at every turn, no matter the cost.
If we have hundreds of millions of dollars for tanks that won’t be used to protect our soldiers, perhaps we can in fact afford hundreds of millions for the mental health care that could save their lives. It will take representatives and Senators of both parties to acknowledge the fact that Congress can pay for whatever Congress feels like paying. Veteran mental health care can and will absolutely be one of those issues if the American people choose to make it one.
Bryan Kim is CEO of the Moderate Majority, an independent grassroots coalition based in San Diego that is working to put an end to political partisanship.