‘There was almost no debate’: How Dems’ defense spending spree went from shocker to snoozer

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·8 min read

Last year, Democrats on Capitol Hill stunned observers when they voted to ladle tens of billions of extra dollars onto President Joe Biden’s first Pentagon budget. Wielding control of the House, Senate and White House for the first time in a decade, Democrats were expected to hold the line on Pentagon spending that ballooned under Republicans and the Trump administration.

Now, Congress is poised to do it again — with even more money at stake — and it’s anything but shocking.

While lawmakers haven’t struck a deal yet on spending for the coming fiscal year, increases backed by the armed services committees point to national defense spending that could approach or exceed $850 billion, versus the $802 billion Biden requested.

Rep. Anthony Brown (D-Md.), a House Armed Services Committee member who voted in favor of the topline increase, noted the swiftness of the deliberation over the topline. "In the committee, there was almost no debate,” he said.

Runaway inflation, arming Ukraine in its fight against Russia and growing concerns about China’s military have beaten arguments that the Pentagon should seek tradeoffs and make due. And as lawmakers of all political stripes look to secure cash for weapons and equipment built in their districts, bipartisan backing for steady defense spending has also weighed heavily on the Democrats’ spending agenda. That upward trend will almost certainly accelerate if Republicans sweep the midterm elections.

“War. Inflation. That's it. There's a war going on, and the United States is seriously engaged in assisting Ukraine,” explained Rep. John Garamendi (D-Calif.), an Armed Services member who opposed the increased topline. “That sets the tone for more, more, more for the military.

“We lose this debate. That's why,” he added.

Even as America’s longest war ended in Afghanistan months earlier, Biden’s budget request sought a $30 billion increase for national defense programs over the current year’s level. But backing for even more spending was resounding on Capitol Hill.

The House Armed Services Committee endorsed a $37 billion increase above the administration’s request last month as part of its version of the National Defense Authorization Act, with 14 of the panel’s 31 Democrats siding with Republicans.

This year, the plan to raise the bill’s price tag was authored by two moderate Democrats. The amendment to increase the topline, which last year was offered in committee by ranking Armed Services Republican Mike Rogers of Alabama, was instead sponsored this year by Reps. Jared Golden (D-Maine) and Elaine Luria (D-Va.).

Both years yielded the same result: 42-17 votes in favor of more money than the administration sought.

Action has been even more lopsided in the Senate Armed Services Committee, which backed a $45 billion addition to its defense bill. Only one senator on the committee — Massachusetts Democrat Elizabeth Warren — has voted against increased defense spending in both years.

Though a majority of Democrats sided with Biden’s $802 billion proposed budget on the House floor this month, a bipartisan coalition has so far drowned out progressive lawmakers pushing to hold the line, or even cut, the Pentagon budget.

"I think it's an irrational fear that our party has of being painted in a TV ad as being weak on defense where most people, I think, don't want a trillion-dollar defense budget,” said progressive Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.), who opposed the bill over the heightened topline.

Many progressives argue the defense budget enjoys a favored status on Capitol Hill, with large spending increases taking precedence over funding for needs on the homefront.

"We gave the Republicans so much of a veto power because we aren't able to come to a consensus within our own caucus on a defense bill that progressives and Blue Dogs would vote for,” Khanna said. “I think if [House Armed Services Chair] Adam Smith had that — that if he could get the progressives to say, 'OK, we'd vote for this' — then he'd be more willing to have that Democratic version. But it's very hard to do."

Smith unsuccessfully opposed a higher topline in his committee’s bill, but disagrees that defense is “unique” among federal spending. He cited several trillion dollars in emergency funding lawmakers passed to combat the coronavirus pandemic and mitigate the economic fallout of the virus.

"With Republicans having a say in whatever we're going to pass... whatever the Democratic president is going to say, they're going to say it ought to be more,” Smith told POLITICO.

Democrats’ inability to agree on defense legislation in a narrowly divided Congress, and the bill’s bipartisan tradition, has given Republican defense hawks ample leverage to secure a larger topline.

"The breakdown is unfortunate [and] not too surprising," said Julia Gledhill, an analyst at the Project on Government Oversight. "Democrats just don't want to look weak on defense ahead of an expected red wave this fall, especially given the war in Ukraine and record inflation."

Rep. Jim Cooper (D-Tenn.), who opposed increasing the defense bill’s price tag during last month’s Armed Services deliberations, said the likelihood of a funding increase is “an indication that Democrats can’t pass a bill on their own.”

"It's a bipartisan bill that's necessary for national defense,” he said. “We certainly don't have the numbers in the Senate, but we may even lack them in the House."

In rebuking Biden’s budget, the House and Senate defense bills also scramble many Pentagon plans to scrap aging yet popular weapons to save money.

Both bills mandate that the Navy keep five of the nine littoral combat ships it sought to decommission. Lawmakers also limited the Navy from retiring EA-18G Growler electronic warfare jets and blocked Air Force plans to shed F-22 Raptor fighters in both measures.

The House bill also dedicated $3.6 billion of its topline increase to boosting Navy shipbuilding. Lawmakers authorized an extra five ships that the Navy didn’t request. House Armed Services also OK’d eight more F/A-18 Super Hornet jets for the Navy. And the House and Senate proposed purchasing more F-35 aircraft than requested — the House authorized three more planes for the Navy while the Senate greenlit seven more for the Air Force.

For some lawmakers, Russia's invasion of Ukraine was a watershed moment in cementing a larger defense budget. Members have passed several tranches of aid for Kyiv, including a $40 billion package enacted in May, roughly half of which flowed to Defense Department accounts.

"I think it's just this recognition among more and more members that we live in a much more dangerous world and we're at risk,” Brown said.

The conflict, which has seen tens of thousands more troops deployed to Europe to bolster NATO countries and billions allocated to a years-long effort to replenish stocks of weapons shipped to Ukraine, has been “a total paradigm shift” in the debate over long-term military spending, said Rep. Joe Courtney (D-Conn.), chair of the House Armed Services' Seapower panel.

"I think the biggest intervening event is Ukraine,” Courtney said of the defense spending debate.

"If you look at what was different this year, I do think defense spending and the defense budget just has a totally different place right now,” he added.

Several Armed Services Democrats indeed changed their minds on the topline with even more money at stake this year.

Reps. Donald Norcross of New Jersey, Ruben Gallego of Arizona and Joe Morelle of New York all back an increased topline after voting against it a year earlier. Reps. Seth Moulton of Massachusetts and Salud Carbajal of California opposed the increase despite backing it last year. Rep. Sylvia Garcia opposed the extra $37 billion after she replaced a fellow Texas Democrat, Filemon Vela, who supported a higher topline the previous year.

A more notable but small shift, Gledhill said, is the 14 Republicans who voted to undo the increase on the House floor. In a similar vote last year, no Republicans backed reducing the bill’s topline.

The debate is far from over. Even if the House and Senate Armed Services panels agree on legislation with a much larger price tag, Congress still must pass funding legislation to actually provide those dollars.

With the House and Senate on the verge of an extended summer recess and the prospects of major spending legislation before the midterm elections dim, lawmakers are likely to place federal spending on autopilot to begin fiscal 2023. Doing so will carry over the current year’s funding levels and delay a major increase for the Pentagon.

The House Appropriations Committee stuck to Biden’s budget in its defense spending bill, a move Republicans oppose. The Senate is set to unveil its own measure this week, and appropriators could very well endorse a spending hike on par with the upper chamber’s version of the National Defense Authorization Act.

“We understand the topline’s going up from the president’s budget,” Senate Armed Services Chair Jack Reed (D-R.I.) told POLITICO. “And I think what we did was very reasonable and I would hope that they would follow that.”