Reforming Defense Spending and National Guard Overseas Deployments

Since September 11, 2001 there has been an extreme increase in U.S. military activity abroad.  Like most federal decisions, those concerning the military, both spending and deployment, affect the states.  Weary of watching federal funds being spent on out-dated military projects instead of local needs and frustrated at dealing with natural disasters without fully staffed or equipped National Guard units, some state leaders have demanded reform.  These individuals argue that changes in the military budget and the distribution of resources must be made to ensure security both at home and abroad.  As the current economic recession grows, these voices to realign priorities on defense spending are only growing.

Currently, U.S. military spending — Dept. of Defense plus nuclear weapons — is equal to the military spending of the next 15 countries combined.  While it is necessary to ensure that the United States has a well-funded and strong military, it is also important to note that every dollar spent on high-tech weapons designed for the cold war, is a dollar not spent on health care, education and housing. To date, approximately $915 billion of taxpayer money has been allocated to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan since 2001.  That same amount of money could have been used to provide 403,332,085 children with health care for a year, fund 7,118,476 affordable housing units for a year, or provide over 141,481,138 scholarships to university students for a year.

Not only is the amount of military spending startling, but so is how the money is allocated.  Despite the fact that today terrorist cells, rogue states and our own internal vulnerabilities are more of a threat than a war with Russia, experts have examined the security budget and determined that 87% of our security resources are being spent on military forces (in the regular budget alone, excluding war spending), vs. 8% on homeland security and 5% on non-military international engagement. 

In addition to the recent controversy around the military budget, there has also been a growing conversation about the use of the National Guard members and equipment for long-term deployment.  Many state leaders worry that with the ongoing deployment of National Guard units and equipment to Iraq and Afghanistan, their states will be unprepared if a disaster hits.  For example, as we highlighted here, it took two days after the Kansas tornadoes nearly wiped Greensburg, Kansas off the map before a significant number of military vehicles arrived, most streaming in from Wichita, about 100 miles away.  As then Kansas State Senator Donald Betts Jr., put it:

"We should have had National Guard troops there right after the tornado hit, securing the place, pulling up debris, to make sure that if there was still life, people could have been saved. The response time was too slow, and it's becoming a trend. We saw this after Katrina, and it's like history repeating itself."

This Stateside Dispatch will discuss the security and economic benefits of a shift to a more well-rounded defense program as well as highlight the toll of sending National Guard members and equipment overseas.   Particularly, this Dispatch will focus on the efforts of two organizations - the Women Legislators' Lobby (WiLL) and Bring the Guard Home Campaign - who work to educate state legislators on the impact of federal military decisions and mobilize them to take action to protect the interests of states and their residents while advancing national security.

Table of Contents

- Demanding Changes in National Security Spending Priorities

- Bring the Guard Home

- Conclusion

Demanding Changes in National Security Spending Priorities

In April, nearly 400 women legislators from across the country, organized by the Women Legislators' Lobby (WiLL), a national non-partisan network of women state legislators who work together to influence federal policy and budget priorities, sent a letter to Congress urging them to support the new administration's efforts to change priorities in the military budget.  Representing millions of constituents, these state lawmakers say by shifting dollars away from Cold War weapons and towards a new security approach, billions of dollars would be freed up.  This money could then be used to invest in public projects that would lay the foundation for a safer and more prosperous future as well as create more jobs.

Sustainable Security: In the WiLL letter, legislators call attention to how the military is spending billions of dollars on Cold War-era weapons instead of appropriating adequate funding to modern day threats such as terrorist cells, rogue states or our own internal vulnerabilities.  They advocate that the government adopt a more well-rounded defense strategy that focuses greater attention and funding on homeland security and diplomacy.  

By building a well-rounded defense program, which means investing not only in offense - our military forces - but also defense in the form of homeland security and prevention through non-military international engagement, including diplomacy, nonproliferation, foreign aid, peacekeeping, and contributions to international organizations, WiLL argues the United States can better protect itself from modern day threats while also potentially reducing its defense budget.   For example,  Lawrence Korb, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and a former Assistant Secretary of Defense under Pres. Reagan, has noted that America could save $60 billion by cutting obsolete Cold War-era weapons systems and excessive nuclear weapons that were designed to thwart the former Soviet Union and are useless for defending our nation from extremists or the other threats we now face.

Climate Change a Potential Threat to Sustainable Security: WiLL has also argued that one key component of this new sustainable security must include addressing climate change.  According to a group of retired generals and admirals, the effects of global warming are likely to cause inter-state conflict over vital resources (such as fresh water), political turmoil and extremism within nations, food shortages, and mass migrations. Succinctly put, “climate change acts as a threat multiplier for instability in the most volatile regions of the world.”

As we at PSN have reported before, state legislatures have long been in the forefront of addressing the threat of climate change.  Using that state leadership, the legislator members of WiLL are urging Congress to address climate change through the lens of the military budget.  WiLL has made available sample letters to the editor and sample op-ed language to help educate fellow policymakers and the public.

WiLL notes that the U.S. spends $20 to develop new weapons systems for every $1 we spend on new clean energy and energy-saving technologies.  We also spend $50 on international military security assistance -- selling and giving away U.S made weapons -- for every $1 we spend to help other countries reduce emissions and deal with the effects of climate change. 

To ensure real security, our federal government must shift money away from the military and toward programs to slow climate change.  WiLL recommends prioritizing “green job” retraining and investing in major, new clean infrastructure, such as upgrading mass transit to reduce emissions. Just as the states have scaled up the market for electric vehicles by buying them for their own transportation fleets, so too can federal purchasing help catalyze green industry markets.

Ultimately, when Congress puts together the federal budget, they must start to change our federal budget priorities toward the direction of “real” security, which now means stemming climate change.

A Trimmer Military Budget Equals More Jobs: To date, the primary argument against changing the military budget has been jobs. However, as WiLL notes, investing tax dollars in non-military sectors would create more jobs. For example, according to a report by University of Massachusetts economists, more jobs could be created by spending $1 billion in any sector other than the military.  In fact, twice as many jobs are created by equivalent spending on education and mass transit as on the military.  The "bottom line" of the study is that "public dollars invested in health care, education, mass transit, or construction, for home weatherization and infrastructure create more jobs than investing an equivalent amount in either the military or personal consumption." 

Federal dollars invested in education, health care, mass transit, or weatherization would not only create more jobs than military spending, but it would also strengthen homeland security services, such as rail and transit security, emergency preparedness and public health.  Switching federal spending to these non-military sectors would help spur our struggling job market, especially in states that have had to cut funding for services and job creation in order to close budget gaps.  Despite these fiscal and employment benefits, however, Congress has often failed to trim obsolete military spending succumbing to military contractor lobbies and fears of losing jobs in their districts.

A Change in Defense Priorities?   Changes in wasted defense dollars are already coming from the new Administration.  In a February 24, 2009 speech, President Obama pledged to “reform our defense budget so that we're not paying for Cold War-era weapons systems we don’t use.”  This move to reform the military budget so it spends less on high-tech weaponry and more on people was echoed in April by Defense Secretary Gates when he outlined his plan to change the "priorities of America's defense establishment" — away from high-tech weapons designed to fight the Cold War, toward programs to support troops and veterans.  Many of his changes would shift funding away from "exquisite," expensive, futuristic systems and toward relatively low-tech systems best suited for irregular (guerrilla) war.

In a hopeful sign that Congress may yet follow the Administration's lead, at the end of July both the Senate and House acquiesced to capping production of the F-22 Raptor at 187 planes.  The Pentagon said it no longer needed the F-22, which was designed to fight the Soviet Union and has not been used in Iraq or Afghanistan.  However, the cap only passed after President Obama promised to veto a $600 billion-plus defense spending bill.

Also, in a Washington Post interview last week, John Brennan, President Obama's senior counterterrorism adviser, stated that the U.S. must redefine its counterterrorism strategy by focusing on all facets of national power to defeat the enemy while also advancing American ideals, such as promoting political participation and economic development.  This concept of sustainable security would integrate defense, diplomacy, and development into a comprehensive policy designed to deal with today’s global threats and even prevent future threats from arising. 

Women Legislators' Lobby (WiLL) - Alternative Public Spending: Effects on Job Creation
Women Legislators' Lobby (WiLL) - Action Guide: Security and Climate Change
Project on Government Oversight - National Security
True Majority - Setting the Priorities Straight
Center for American Progress - Sustainable Security 101
Center for American Progress - Interactive: Design Your Own Defense Budget
National Priorities Project - Federal Budget Trade-Offs

Bring the Guard Home

The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have taken their toll not only on the U.S. military, but also on the states' National Guard units, which were called up when Congress passed the 2002 Authorization to Use Military Force (AUMF).  The September 11, 2001 attacks on the U.S.'s ensuing war on terror triggered the largest activation of National Guard forces since World War II, underscoring the Army's growing reliance on the Guard and Reserve even as frustrated states fought the demands by the federal government. A growing state-level movement is working to keep the Guard at home.

Back in 2007, supported by PSN, state legislatures across the nation mobilized to promote state resolutions condemning the escalation in Iraq.  By the end of that session, resolutions were introduced in 30 state legislatures and were ultimately passed in 17 states.

"Bring the Guard Home! It's the law" is a newer national movement of state campaigns to end the unlawful overseas deployment of our National Guard.  Now in the second year of what is shaping up to be a long-term effort, this movement supports state legislation authorizing state executives to take a hard look at presidential orders purporting to federalize state National Guard units and to prevent National Guard federalization absent a valid congressional authorization.  Begun as a response to the often unilateral policies of the Bush administration, the long-term goal of the Guard Home! movement is to help the states to renew and reassert their historic national defense responsibilities.

The Guard Home! movement began in January 2008 with a frustrated state legislator and a single question.  State Representative Michael Fisher of Lincoln, Vermont, wanted to know what he could do to hasten the withdrawal of U.S. forces in Iraq.  The majority of the American public opposed the occupation of Iraq.  So did the Vermont State Legislature, having adopted a February 2007, resolution authored by Rep. Fisher calling for an immediate military withdrawal.  But the federal government was not responding, and Fisher wanted to "put some teeth" into the state's position. To do so he introduced HR 746, which resolves that since the original AUMF has expired and therefore "the general assembly declares that the governor, as commander in chief, should take all necessary steps to withdraw all members of the Vermont national guard from Iraq subject only to conditions of time and manner specifically required to assure their safety and well-being during removal operations."

Rep. Fisher's efforts drew the attention of the Liberty Tree Foundation, a national pro-democracy group based in Wisconsin, and together with Cities for Peace, they began to build a national coalition of veterans and military families organizations, peace groups, and advocates of democratic reform to support state legislation modeled after Vermont's.  By the end of the 2008 presidential election, Guard Home! campaigns were underway in a dozen states, with legislation being introduced in five of them.

On January 21, 2009, the day following the inauguration of President Obama, the Guard Home! movement held a series of launch events around the country, capped by a press conference at the National Press Club in the District of Columbia.  Since the formal launch of this movement, Guard Home! campaigns have been launched in an additional eight states and the District.  Highlights so far have included legislative hearings in Maryland, New Mexico, New Hampshire, and Oregon, as well as a five-part series of events in Wisconsin.  Oregon's Guard Home! campaign achieved majority support in the State Assembly, gaining the approval large numbers of Assembly Democrats and Republicans in the process.

States by the Numbers:

  • With Guard Home! campaigns:
    AK, CA, DC, FL, IL, MA, MD, ME, MI, MN, NH, NJ, NM, NY, RI, SC, TX, VA, VT, WA, WI
  • Where legislation has been introduced: 
    MA, MD, MN, NH, NJ, NM, NY, OR, PA, VT, WI
  • With legislation currently in session or pending:
    AK, MA, MD, MN, NH, NM, PA, VT, WI

Upcoming Conference:  The next major stop for the Guard Home! movement will be a national conference scheduled for October 2-3, 2009, in Washington D.C. titled, "Who Decides About War? National Conference on War Powers, Law and Democracy."  Leading speakers include Sen. Richard Madaleno (MD) and Rep. Michael Fisher (VT), as well as other specialists from Georgetown Law School, National Lawyers Guild, Liberty Tree Foundation, and elsewhere.

The gathering, "will confront essential questions raised by the U.S. invasions and occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan," and will develop a statement of common principles leading to a more democratic, comprehensive, and durable national defense policy — one that will honor the Constitution and help keep the United States from entering into unnecessary wars." 

Legislative Sign-on letter:  State Rep. Fisher this week released a national sign-on letter for state legislators concerned about the unlawful use of the National Guard. The letter explains the law and policy concerns underpinning the Guard Home! movement.  Key passages include:

In recent years, we have watched our State Guard called into federal service and deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan. Our Guard members have become a central part of the ongoing American military presence in the region. 

Today we see in the new administration in Washington the promise of a change in U.S. policy toward Iraq. We are relieved that there is now a plan for withdrawal. Yet the presence of the Guard in Iraq today remains outside the mission authorized by Congress and therefore outside the law. deployments were, and are, outside of the scope of the sole powers of the Presidency. Since war powers are divided between the Congress and the President under the Constitution, the deployments are at odds with the principle of separation of powers so essential to our democracy.

The letter concludes by urging action by Congress, the President, and the governors, and pledging support for reform of state National Guard law. The full text of the letter is available online at

Bring the Guard Home - National Guard Legislation
Bring the Guard Home - Study Guide: Benson Scotch on war powers, defense policy, and the National Guard
Bring the Guard Home - Organizing Guide for starting a "Guard Home!" campaign in your state
Center for Constitutional Rights - Restore. Protect. Expand The Constitution: Amend the War Powers Resolution
Progressive States Network - National Guard Readiness: Iraq, Kansas, and Future Disasters


As we face possibly the greatest economic and fiscal crises since the Great Depression, state leaders are raising their voices to demand a re-examination of excessive and out-moded military spending.  With state and local programs facing desperate budget cuts, now is the time to redirect military spending to the pressing needs at home.  Our communities are not made safer by National Guard units stuck in endless overseas rotations, particularly as this leaves communities unprepared when disaster strikes.

Our long-term security is far more dependent on investing in the skills of our children and the economic strength of our economy than in maintaining out-dated Cold War weapons systems.  Realigning federal spending away from the military toward spending in the states for real investments is one of the most critical steps we can take for long-term economic recovery and growth.