WASHINGTON ― The Democratic split over the size of future defense budgets will come to a head in the new Congress, the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash., predicted Tuesday.
The outcome of the long-simmering dispute would take on higher stakes if some pre-election polling becomes a reality and Democrats retake Congress and the White House. Though President Donald Trump and his supporters claim the Democratic Party has been hijacked by the far left, Smith’s remarks suggest the party’s future direction, at least on defense spending, is not yet settled.
Instead of slashing next year’s $740 billion defense budget, as some progressives want, Smith is pushing, “a rational Democratic, progressive national security strategy,” as he called it. That stance seems to align Smith with his party’s pragmatic standard-bearer, Joe Biden, who’s said he doesn’t foresee major defense cuts, if elected.
“I don’t think that rational policy involves 20 percent defense cut, but that fight is going to be had,” Smith said at an event hosted by George Mason University. “There are extremists on the right and extremists on the left, and what I’m trying to do is say, ‘Let’s go for pragmatic problem solving.’ I don’t see extremism solving problems.”
If Democrats are swept into power Nov. 3, it will be by voters opposed to President Donald Trump from across the political spectrum, Smith said. To hold on that mandate, Democrats would need to govern with a broad coalition and not overreach from the left on issues like defense.
“Okay, we can win an election because people are appalled by Donald Trump,” Smith said, “but that doesn’t mean that they’re endorsing us in any sort of huge, dramatic way.”
After the House passed an early version of last year’s defense policy bill without Republicans aboard, negotiations to reconcile it with theWhite House and GOP-held Senate dragged for months before a compromise bill passed Congress with progressive priorities stripped from it, leaving them dissatisfied.
This year, many of the progressives' priorities were deflected from the House’s version of the bill, and it passed the chamber with support from more than half of Republicans and more than two-thirds of Democrats.
Military spending remains popular with most Republicans, and they largely opposed progressive amendments in the House and Senate this summer to slash the authorization bill by 10 percent. HASC member Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., called the House amendment, “a deeply irresponsible stunt.”
Biden and congressional Democrats are already under pressure from progressives like Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., who have been part of a campaign to direct spending away from the military in favor of healthcare, education and jobs. Massive spending on national security, they say, didn’t protect the country from COVID-19.
“You have a progressive movement in the party now that is really motivated and mobilized around foreign policy and national security issues, and that’s not going away,” Matt Duss, a Sanders foreign policy aide, told Defense News last month. “That is something a President Biden will have to work with, and I think his team understands that.”
As both Biden, Trump and lawmakers of both parties have called for the U.S. to extricate itself from the Mideast and end the “endless wars” in Iraq and Afghanistan, Smith said it’s important to educate a war-weary American people about why it’s unwise to retreat from the world stage ― marked by hotspots in Libya, Syria and West Africa.
“We’ve got to make the case to them: ‘Here’s why the defense budget is what it is, here’s why we’re trying to accomplish what we’re trying to accomplish, and here’s why it’s in your best interest,’” Smith said. “And we’re going to be very aggressive about having public hearings and public discussions to listen to people, to listen to those concerns and try to address them.”
The Pentagon’s five-year defense plan indicates it will request flat defense spending after 2021, and ― amid pandemic-related expenses and historic deficits ― the budget is widely expected to stay flat regardless of who is president. Smith pretty much echoed that view Tuesday.
“I think the reasonable assumption is yeah, the defense budget is going to be flat for a while ― and there is no reason on Earth in my view that we cannot defend the United States of America for $700 to $740 billion,” Smith said. “So I think the better question, the question to focus on, is how do we get more out of it?”
On that one, Smith echoed some ideas from his committee’s bipartisan Future of Defense Task Force. Its report emphasized the need, in order to compete with a surging China, to divest from some legacy programs and heavily invest in artificial intelligence, among other potentially game-changing technologies.
Citing a spate of acquisition failures, Smith said Washington has to work with its defense contractors “about how we spend our money and the results we get for that money.” He also acknowledged the need to protect key contractors stressed by the pandemic’s economic impacts and strengthen the industrial base overall.
Smith defended the Pentagon’s allocation of hundreds of millions of dollars in pandemic relief funding for items like jet and submarine parts instead of increasing the country’s supply of medical equipment.
The remarks seemed to set him at odds with liberals like Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., and Rep. Ro Khanna, D-Calif., who have asked the Defense inspector general to look into the department’s “reported misuse” of funds. The Democrat-led House Oversight and Reform Committee, Financial Services Committee, and select subcommittee on the coronavirus crisis are conducting a joint investigation.
“Three committees in Congress are now investigating this, and I’m not one of them because there’s nothing to investigate here, in my view,” Smith said. “This was part of the CARES Act: We gave a billion dollars to DoD to deal with COVID-related expenses. Very specifically, it said one of the COVID related expenses you could deal with was the defense industrial base, which they did. And now we’re chewing on them for doing that.”
Smith said the Pentagon did “nothing illegal,” but he suggested it’s reasonable to explore whether DoD balanced the money it received appropriately and whether its payments to large contractors are flowing to smaller, more vulnerable firms, as they should.
“I think it is important to make sure we keep the industrial base going,” Smith said, “but there’s going to be pressure on that [decision].”
Joe Gould was the senior Pentagon reporter for Defense News, covering the intersection of national security policy, politics and the defense industry. He had previously served as Congress reporter.