Voters gave Democrats control of the White House, the Senate, and the House last year. That should have been a mandate for change. But when it comes to defense spending, the change is for the worse.
This week, the House endorsed a $768.1 billion National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) for Fiscal Year 2022 by a vote of 363-70. The legislation earned overwhelming Republican support—194 “yes” votes, versus just 19 “no” votes. And it did almost as well among members of the House Democratic Caucus, with 169 members of the majority bloc voting “yes,” while only 51 voted “no.”
The proposal now heads to the Senate, where there will be some wrangling, but approval of another bloated Pentagon budget is considered all but certain.
Negotiators from both parties—who hashed out the agreement in behind-closed-doors sessions—hailed this high level of consensus as evidence that they can work together, even in this deeply divided Congress, and get things done.
Unfortunately, they were working in the wrong direction.
The “compromise plan” the negotiators unveiled this week, which the House quickly passed, was packed with concessions to the Republicans—including removal of a provision for the creation of an Office of Countering Extremism within the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness, and another that would have allowed for the confiscation of the firearms of service members accused of domestic violence by military authorities. Democrats even removed proposals that had bipartisan support, such as a plan to have young women join young men in registering for the draft, at the demand of social conservatives in the Senate.
But the biggest concession was to the military-industrial complex’s demand for more money.
A Congress controlled by Democrats is moving to expend $768.1 billion on Pentagon projects that will pour precious federal resources into the bank accounts of defense contractors. That’s tens of billions more than President Biden requested, and many tens of billions more than was authorized last December, when Donald Trump was still in the White House and Republicans ran the Senate.
“The bill is worse than we expected—and that’s saying a lot,” declared Peace Action’s Lilly Dragnev.
In a critical review of the NDAA, Dragnev pointed to a number of “serious problems.” She said, “The bill increases military spending by $25 billion above the level in the president’s already bloated request. Why is the Pentagon budget going up after we bring troops home from Afghanistan?” She also pointed to the fact that “the negotiated bill took out provisions to restrict US support for the Saudi-led forces’ assault on Yemen, which is causing a humanitarian crisis and human-made famine.”
Additionally, the bill “fails to repeal the zombie ‘war authorizations’ from 20-plus years ago that are being used for ongoing US military action across the globe,” said Dragnev. “With this bill the US stumbles further into a cold war with China. Congress added $7 billion to ‘beef up posture’ in the Pacific in ways likely to fuel a cycle of military escalation.”
Most of the House opposition to the NDAA came from progressives, who were frustrated by not only spending hikes but also compromise language that watered down reforms, including those promoted by Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) to overhaul the way sexual assault cases are handled by the military. “This bill does not reform the military justice system in a way that will truly help survivors get justice,” said Gillibrand on Wednesday.
While some reforms will be adopted, the senator explained that commanders “can still pick the jury, select the witnesses, grant or deny witness immunity requests, order depositions, and approve the hiring of expert witnesses and consultants. If you are a survivor who believes that the commander is never going to believe you or take you seriously, you may not ever report, because the commander is still in charge.”
That was just one of a number of policy concerns identified by progressives.
Explaining that “I couldn’t support a bill that spends far more on the Pentagon than the Pentagon asked for and fails to end U.S. complicity in the bombing of Yemeni civilians,” Representative Ro Khanna (D-Calif.) asked, “Is this really the best we can do while having the Presidency and both Houses?”
No, it is not.
Representative Barbara Lee (D-Calif.), a longtime critic of bloated Pentagon spending, summed up the sentiments of progressives who recognized the NDAA as a boondoggle.
“In no way could I support yet another year of wasteful, unaudited, irresponsible Defense spending,” said Lee, who has spent years trying to get Congress to rescind open-ended authorizations for the use of military force. “Don’t ever tell me we can’t afford to invest in our communities when we just approved $778b for the Pentagon. Shameful to say the least.”
Representative Jamaal Bowman (D-N.Y.) amplified the point when he said, “It is astounding how quickly Congress moves weapons but we can’t ensure housing, care, and justice for our veterans, nor invest in robust jobs programs for districts like mine.”
During a fall session that has seen the Congress bogged down by wrangling over domestic spending bills, the NDAA has made steady progress. That’s frustrating to Senate Budget Committee chair Bernie Sanders, who last month, on the eve of an initial Senate vote on the current measure, announced:
Many of my colleagues tell the American people, day after day, how deeply concerned they are about the deficit and the national debt. They tell us that we just don’t have enough money to expand Medicare, guarantee paid family and medical leave, and address the climate crisis to the degree that we should if we want to protect the well-being of future generations. Yet, tomorrow, the U.S. Senate will be voting on an annual defense budget that costs $778 billion—$37 billion more than President Trump’s last defense budget and $25 billion more than what President Biden requested. All this for an agency, the Department of Defense, that continues to have massive fraud and cost overruns year after year and is the only major government agency not to successfully complete an independent audit. Isn’t it strange how even as we end the longest war in our nation’s history concerns about the deficit and national debt seem to melt away under the influence of the powerful Military Industrial Complex?
Despite the frustration, Peace Action’s Dragnev notes that support for reductions in Pentagon spending has grown in recent years—among grassroots Democrats and among the growing block of insurgent members of Congress. Polling shows that support for cuts is at the highest level among Democratic voters since 1990, when the Cold War was ending. A plurality of Democrats expressed support for reduced spending—42 percent, versus just 12 percent who backed expanded spending in a 2020 Chicago Council survey. And the Defense Spending Reduction Caucus in the House, which was formed last year by Lee and Representative Mark Pocan, has organized dozens of members in support of letters asking the Biden administration to shift money toward domestic needs.
“Cutting the Pentagon’s budget could help fight threats like COVID, climate change, and more,” Pocan said after Tuesday’s vote. “Our work to cut the Pentagon’s budget and reallocate funds to help communities across the country is just beginning. The fight doesn’t end tonight.”