WASHINGTON — In an alliance of political convenience, House defense advocates and the House Freedom Caucus have teamed up to demand Republican leaders hold a vote on a stand-alone defense appropriations bill, which they received last week.
For the Freedom Caucus, the move aligns them with President Donald Trump’s “rebuild the military” campaign pledge. For defense advocates, who have been pushing for more defense dollars for years, the alliance lends them the strength of another two dozen or so House Republican votes.
Freedom Caucus chairman Mark Meadows told reporters on Jan. 31 that he planned to meet with pro-defense lawmakers at the GOP’s annual retreat last week “to talk about strategy going forward, to make sure we don’t hold our men and women in the military hostage.”
Meadows — who still favors a Defense Department audit, streamlined procurement and cutting the Pentagon’s bureaucratic waste — bristled at the suggestion that this latest stand for defense spending marks an evolution for the Freedom Caucus.
“I don’t think we were ever against defense spending in the past — it was a mischaracterization,” Meadows said. “I don’t know that you see a dime’s bit of difference between us and the [House Armed Service Committee] members on” Trump’s military spending plans.
Broadly speaking, their members place defense spending over domestic spending. However, their support for statutory budget caps and/or domestic offsets for defense increases have arguably snared defense spending in budget negotiations.
Just weeks after Trump won, for instance, Meadows and other Freedom Caucus members said they would not support deficit spending to pay for a military buildup.
Within the last year, a lead defense hawk, Tactical Air and Land Forces Subcommittee Chairman Mike Turner, R-Ohio, said on CNN the group had a “mob mentality.” Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain, R-Ariz., for his part opposed Trump’s pick for budget director, Freedom Caucus co-founder Mick Mulvaney.
“You’ve spend your entire congressional career pitting the debt against our military, and each time, at least for you, our military was less important,” McCain fumed at Mulvaney, then a Republican congressman for South Carolina, during his confirmation hearing.
The Freedom Caucus, whose members rode in on 2010’s populist tea party wave, has since leaned into the populist president’s plans to boost military spending, cut taxes and expand infrastructure — which is arguably a departure from the fiscally conservative principles they espoused to stymy Democratic President Barack Obama and then-House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio.
Embracing defense spending and the local jobs it creates is the smart way to go for Republicans wary of an anti-Trump wave in midterm elections, according to Jim Moran, a former Democratic congressman from Virginia who served for many years on the House Appropriations Committee.
“It took a little while for them to drop their arrogance enough to listen to some of the government relations representatives of the defense firms who are able to inform them about the number of [defense] jobs in their congressional districts that are at stake,” said Moran, now with McDermott Will and Emery.
“Those are good jobs, generally moderate Republicans have those jobs, and if you vote to jeopardize that defense economy in your district, you can become dead meat,” Moran said.
In November, Meadows, former Army aviator Scott Perry, R-Pa., and former Freedom Caucus chairman Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, unsuccessfully offered an amendment to the 2018 National Defense Authorization Act that would have raised defense spending caps from $549 billion to $634 billion.
In December, the Freedom Caucus joined forces with House Armed Services Committee Republicans to demand House GOP leaders hold a vote on a stand-alone defense appropriations bill in exchange for their votes to pass a continuing resolution and avert a government shutdown.
In the wake of a government shutdown in which both parties accused the other of harming the military, the House passed the bill 250-166. Twenty-three Democrats joined the Republican majority, and four Republicans voted against it.
The measure has dim prospects in the Senate, but the idea was to use the vote to highlight Democratic insistence in budget negotiations that defense spending increases be matched on the nondefense side.
In 2015, House Budget Committee deliberations were derailed by a day when the Freedom Caucus jousted with pro-defense lawmakers over wartime overseas contingency operations funding. The defense hawks later won out on the House floor with an amendment to boost OCO.
But in June, House Armed Services Committee Chairman Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, told reporters he met with members of the Freedom Caucus to spell out the military’s needs — after which the fiscal hawks said they would be willing to consider defense spending above budget caps.
After the meeting, Virginia Republican Rep. Dave Brat, who was involved in the 2015 row, told Bloomberg: “That was back without a Republican president. So the rules of the game are a little different.”
Joe Gould is senior Pentagon reporter for Defense News, covering the intersection of national security policy, politics and the defense industry.