Sometime this week, or maybe last, the U.S. death toll from COVID-19 passed one million. With restrictions ending everywhere and new variants on the loose, the catastrophe shows no sign of abating. Federal officials predict as many as 100 million new COVID cases this fall, with as many as 100,000 more American deaths anticipated in the next wave.
That made it a particularly awkward moment for the president to put COVID funding on the back burner. But that’s what he did: On Monday, Biden instructed Senate Democrats to take his aid package for COVID mitigation out of their next spending bill, so they could prioritize funneling tens of billions of dollars to the arms industry as quickly as possible.
Now that’s not fair, Katz, you may be saying, Biden wanted to mitigate the pandemic AND funnel tens of billions of dollars to the arms industry.
And that’s true. But the way the government funds itself, combined with the realities of a 50-50 Senate split, made that impossible. The problem was that Senate Republicans and a few Democratic “moderates” are holding COVID funding hostage unless they could achieve a different murderous priority: the enshrinement of a Trump-era law that provides for the immediate expulsion of any foreign national, including asylum-seekers, trying enter the United States. Known as Title 42 (for the section of the U.S. Code where Trump’s white supremacist consigliere Stephen Miller found the pretense), its use is the height of irony: The rule is meant to prevent the introduction of a contagious disease that is not only obviously here, but a disease that many of the same lawmakers who are backing its extension in law have spent the last two years making sure could spread unchecked.
This is how American politics works in 2022. Democrats want to help some people and kill others. Republicans just want to kill.1 The result is that the only group of people able to get anything done legislatively is the bipartisan death caucus.
The arms industry windfall, with an opening price tag of $33 billion for the next five months, is of course meant in part to arm the Ukrainian military in its fight to repel the ongoing Russian invasion. (Or perhaps it is meant to go further and “weaken” Russia, as ex-Rayethon board member and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin recently remarked.)
Biden slapped some more grease on the wheels Monday when he signed the “Ukraine Democracy Defense Lend-Lease Act.” The law is mostly symbolic: the waiving of a few restrictions on “leasing” (in practice purchased) weapons and various “defense articles” to the Ukrainians and other allies in Eastern Europe, which some experts argue duplicates authorities the president already had. But as a piece of diplomatic showmanship it has a lot more punch: The bill is named after the famous Lend-Lease law of 1941, which Franklin Roosevelt used to arm the British, Soviets, and Chinese against the Nazis and Japanese in the months before Pearl Harbor. That law is remembered as “the point of no return for American policy regarding Hitler’s Germany.”
So, though the new Lend-Lease Act bears little resemblance to the old (the importance of FDR’s bill was that it ended the official U.S. policy of neutrality in all foreign wars at the time, a condition that has not been true for a minute since), it is a clear signal to Vladimir Putin and the U.S. arms industry alike: the United States going to act, at least in terms of arms production and delivery, as if Putin is Hitler and we are in the opening stages of another world war.
There is an inherent risk in inaction. Not arming the otherwise outmatched Ukrainians would not be a neutral act, but acquiescence to Russian annexation. But there are grave risks in escalating a conflict with a nuclear power — one that may not buy our talmudic insistence on being a “non-combatant” supplier of the conflict forever. For defense investors and defense industry-funded think tankers (whose alumni are legion in the Biden administration), keeping up the current posture is ideal: we don’t send troops to die in a war with Russia, but arms industry stocks keep rising as if we were. But the more aggressively we signal, the higher the danger gets, as Russians continue to notice that American-supplied rockets and American intelligence keep putting Russian mothers’ sons into their graves.
Despite the risks, every Democrat and all but a handful of the farthest-right (and, it should be noted, most Putin-friendly) Republicans voted for both the Lend-Lease and war funding bill in the House. The funding bill that passed the House on Tuesday totaled $40 billion, though it seems to have taken some money that Biden wanted for the Pentagon and arms contractors and gave it to the State Department and USAID contractors instead. (Which could explain why otherwise war-skeptical Democrats including the “Squad” and Barbara Lee of California — the only member of Congress to vote against the initial invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 — gave the bill their support.)
The Senate adopted the new Lend-Lease Act through unanimous consent. When the funding bill reached the Senate on Thursday, Rand Paul held it up with an attention-getting but ultimately toothless bit of procedure that will be overridden next week. Notably, Paul did not criticize the wealth transfer to the arms industry but instead opposed the bill as a “gift to Ukraine.” I wonder if the Kentucky Republican knew that his constituents would be less likely to applaud his act if they knew that some of the money he was blocking will end up at the Raytheon and Lockheed plants in the Bluegrass State.
Self-proclaimed Republican deficit hawk Lindsey Graham spoke for the rest of the caucus when he admitted he hardly even wanted to know how much the defense supplemental would cost. “I don’t care, as long as the money is going to help the war cause,” he told Roll Call last week.
Speaker Nancy Pelosi keeps emphasizing the urgency with which American war funds are needed. “We cannot afford to wait,” she told her colleagues as the vote neared Tuesday. “Again, time is of the essence.”
Time may be of the essence in Ukraine, but it is also for Americans facing the prospect of yet another COVID surge, and for desperate migrants trying to exercise their right to asylum in the United States. The clock is ticking down to zero on our chance to reduce greenhouse gases before we reach an unavoidable climate catastrophe. Democrats may have already waited too long to show voters that they are capable of improving their economic lives, protecting reproductive rights, or documenting the criminality and anti-democratic behavior of the last administration in time for the midterm elections this fall.
And yet, the only urgent matter anyone in Washington seems able to act on is the everlasting imperative to build more guns and missiles and warplanes and deploy them around the battlefield. The Biden administration even found time to exempt Ukrainian refugees from Title 42 restrictions, without a peep from either Republicans or the Democratic border hawks. It seems we can even be nice to refugees (white ones at least) when they’re our proxies in a war.
The problems here are both political and material. When the only thing you can get done in politics is suborning death, only death politics follow. If the Republicans take Congress in the fall, and Biden wants to try to show voters and pundits that he is capable of getting anything done, then we will only see more war bills and more war spending. Centrists will insist, perhaps even more loudly than they already are, that trying to help people or mitigate non-military catastrophes will guarantee defeat and a return of Donald Trump in 2024. All of that in turn will further alienate voters and lead to even more escalation with Russia in the war. (It will probably also help whoever is on the GOP ticket in two years.) I don’t have an obvious solution to breaking the cycle. But I’d suggest someone find one. Time is of the essence, after all.
Edited by Sam Thielman
MARK YOUR PLANNERS:
D.C.-area folks: This Sunday (5/15) at 3 p.m., I’ll be doing an in-person reading, signing, and Q&A on Gangsters of Capitalism at the Books in Bloom festival in Columbia, MD. Other authors speaking at the daylong event include Carl Bernstein and Kathryn Schulz. More info here.
The next Inside the Chapter podcast will be going out to paid subscribers over the weekend. This is the premium series where Racket researcher Annie Malcolm and I go behind the scenes of the making of Gangsters, with field audio and stories that ended up on the cutting room floor. The next episode is about the Shanghai chapter, which covers Smedley Butler’s intervention in the Chinese civil war between the Communists and the Nationalists. It came out really nicely. Upgrade to a paid sub now (just $6 a month!) so you don’t miss it: