Congress pretends to hold the Pentagon accountable

11 September 2021

2:05 PM

11 September 2021

2:05 PM

The Biden administration’s latest $3.5 trillion spending proposal continues to attract attention. With a hodgepodge of Democratic priorities ranging from climate change to Medicare expansion, the bill is the more partisan companion of the administration’s $1 trillion infrastructure plan.

Of course, another blockbuster story has been distracting attention from these packages — the difficult withdrawal from Afghanistan. Many in Congress continue to be critical of the administration’s handling of the pullout, and some are determined to use the crisis to their political advantage.

The National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) for Fiscal Year 2022, the bill that sets the annual spending level for the Pentagon, has been winding its way through Congress, and recently was advanced by the House Armed Services Committee (HASC). During that committee debate, an amendment introduced by Alabama congressman Mike Rogers proposed to increase top-line spending by nearly $25 billion. That amendment passed 42-17, with the support of nearly half of committee Democrats in addition to all 28 Republicans.

But the bill in its current form is a blow even to the Pentagon budget proposed by the Biden administration earlier this year. Biden promised progressives that he’d heard their concerns. His first budget called for $753 billion in spending for fiscal year 2022. While still an increase of 1.6 percent over the last Trump NDAA, the plus up was much smaller than was typical during the Trump years, and technically a small decrease in inflation-adjusted terms.

For years, progressives had rightfully criticized the Trump administration’s bloating of military expenditures at a time when it was supposedly working to draw down forces overseas. The Pentagon’s budget increased from $619 billion in the last year of the Obama administration to more than $740 billion in 2021 — a nearly 20 percent increase during Trump’s presidency.

The recent increase comes on the heels of a lopsided Senate vote in July to boost the Pentagon budget by another $25 billion to satisfy defense secretary Lloyd Austin’s ‘wish list’ items that weren’t funded by the last NDAA. While Rogers’s amendment must still be approved by appropriators, it is just the latest example of Congress giving the Pentagon more money than the President — and sometimes even the Pentagon itself — requests.

Of course, that’s not how this latest iteration is being sold. The Afghanistan withdrawal has given Republicans and Democrats alike cover to frame the bill as an attempt to ask important questions about the withdrawal, while slipping in ample new spending along the way.

Several amendments have already been proposed seeking more information as to how the withdrawal was handled and about the administration’s counterterrorism plans more broadly. Progressives, allied with a cadre of limited government conservatives, will now have to fight on the House floor to try to strip out the bill’s increased spending amid it’s now being framed in the context of keeping America safe and preventing more events like those of the last month.

Meanwhile, underappreciated in the public discussion is the long-term effect of such spending on the overall budget. As the National Taxpayers Union’s Andrew Lautz noted recently, the true cost of the Rogers-amended NDAA is not limited to the next year, because it also would ‘pave the way for Congress to spend a whopping $1.2 trillion additional dollars on the military, above current projections’ over the next decade. In other words, Congress seems poised to seize upon a crisis to do what they do best — set in place generational profligacy.

In a sense, the more things change, the more they stay the same. Despite a new administration and a change in the partisan composition of Congress, the drive to blow more on the Pentagon continues unabated. Whether all that spending makes us safer is anyone’s guess, but as former Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman Adm. Michael Mullen has pointed out, an out-of-control national debt is ‘bad for the military’ and arguably the ‘most significant threat to our national security’.

Congress would be wise to heed his warning and think twice about increasing the Pentagon’s budget yet again at a time when so much money is already flying out the door.

Jonathan Bydlak is director of the Governance Program at the R Street Institute, a center-right think tank.

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