WASHINGTON — Details of President Joe Biden’s first defense budget won’t be out until Friday, but lawmakers on the left and right have already drawn out their lines for the battle ahead.
For Hill progressives, the plan is a more strategic, surgical attack than in the past to rein in parts of what they view as an ever-expanding military slush fund.
For congressional Republicans, it’s a blunt force message that the defense budget is actually far too low to counter a growing Chinese military and other potential threats.
And starting next month, the fighting begins, with moderate Democratic leaders left to find a path to victory between the two.
Left-leaning Democrats have proposed broad defense cuts before, but House Progressive Caucus Co-Chair Mark Pocan, D-Wis., said he expects group members to try some new ideas once budget season kicks off.
Instead of indiscriminate across-the-board cuts that moderate Democrats have rejected before, the new strategy could mean looking at targeted trims instead. While Pocan didn’t get specific, progressives could weigh in on a brewing fight over how many big-ticket Lockheed-made F-35 fighters Congress will buy.
“Some of it could be a specific percent and a redirection of what defense dollars go towards,” Pocan told Defense News. “There are a lot of things that could happen, but the one thing that hasn’t changed is we want to have more accountability and a different approach to defense spending.”
Last week, Pocan led 19 other lawmakers in an 11th-hour call for Biden to shift what they saw as a post-Afghanistan war “peace dividend” from the defense budget toward domestic problems. They pegged the savings at $50 billion — in line with a separate letter from a coalition of 40 advocacy groups — and asked Biden for a full accounting.
Rather than have that money return to military equipment and training, the lawmakers suggested it be reallocated to, “end homelessness in the United States, provide increased health coverage to Americans in need, or contribute to the ongoing battle against the COVID-19 pandemic.”
Meanwhile, the Senate’s lead progressive, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., has introduced a bipartisan bill that would, if passed, punish the Pentagon if it continues to fail financial audits. Starting in fiscal 2022, any Defense Department agency that fails to obtain a clean audit would have to return 1 percent of its budget to the Treasury.
“If we are serious about spending taxpayer dollars wisely and effectively, we have got to end the absurdity of the Pentagon being the only agency in the federal government that has not passed an independent audit,” said Sanders, who co-sponsored the bill with Republican Sens. Chuck Grassley and Mike Lee, and Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden.
Biden’s budget outline — a $753 billion national defense budget for fiscal 2022, including $715 billion for the Pentagon — represents a slight increase from fiscal 2021 that just trails the rate of inflation. It’s far short of the 3 to 5 percent boost above inflation that Republican lawmakers are seeking.
Last week, the Senate rejected a measure that would have required parity between defense and non-defense spending increases by a 44-53 vote. Despite the failure, hawkish Republicans are vowing to keep push for a defense boost.
“China’s long-term military investments are paying dividends that should alarm us. But Democrats want to pump the brakes on our own?” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said ahead of the vote. “Fewer resources for our own men and women in uniform? Less defense innovation? What sense does that make?”
“We know the best signal we can send China is a strong military, but a strong military is not free,” said Sen. Jim Inhofe, the Senate Armed Services Committee’s top Republican and a co-sponsor of the parity measure. “I’ll continue working with my colleagues to ensure we are giving our military the resources they need to deter Chinese military aggression and defend our country.”
Defending Biden’s defense budget plans falls to Capitol Hill’s two Democratic armed services committee chairman. Both Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash., and Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., are seen as moderates, supportive of robust defense spending but mindful of their caucus’ concerns about the Pentagon largesse.
And while it is unclear whether Republicans will withhold all support for Democrat-led defense bills, Smith said he sees the path to final fiscal 2022 National Defense Authorization Act going through Republicans.
“The bill never passes if it’s not bipartisan, we all understand our responsibility,” Smith told Defense News. “And that’s [Republicans’] incentive: we want to pass a bill. And there are thousands of things in that bill ― or hundreds ― that are important, on a whole series of policy levels, on a bipartisan basis.”
Smith said he was in negotiations with House leadership over the timing of his panel’s NDAA markup, but said it would likely be delayed until early September when Congress returns from a month-long summer recess. That leaves less time to pass a final product before the end of the calendar year.
“It’s a 4,000-page bill. We field somewhere in the neighborhood of 1,000 requests as to what should be put into the bill, as a starting point. We must go through all of those requests, determine their merit, determine how to handle them, and in many cases negotiate how to make alterations.” Smith said.
“That requires the entering of a staggering amount of policy data. That has to be done well. It can’t be done in a haphazard manner because it might become law. That takes more time than anyone who hasn’t ever done it before realizes.”
The defense authorization bill has passed out of Congress for 60 consecutive years, making it one of the few reliable legislative vehicles to survive annual skirmishes between Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill. This year’s campaign may prove one of the most difficult yet.
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.
Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.