War Stories

Could House Democrats Cancel the Pentagon’s Blank Check?

Congress has a chance to exercise real oversight again.

Rep. Adam Smith.
Washington Rep. Adam Smith walks through the Capitol on Oct. 25, 2017.
Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call

One little-noted consequence of the Democrats’ victory in the House of Representatives on Tuesday is that, for the first time in several years, there will be serious oversight of the Defense Department and possibly some cuts in high-profile weapons systems and secret commando operations.

At the Defense News Conference in September, Rep. Adam Smith, the Washington Democrat who has been the ranking member of the House Armed Services Committee and is likely to become its chairman in January, listed his top priorities if his party took control of the House. They include:

• Cuts in the Pentagon’s nuclear weapons modernization program—estimated to cost $1.2 trillion over the next 30 years—as strategically unnecessary (Smith believes we have more than enough nukes to deter an attack) and fiscally unsustainable.

• Oversight of special operations missions worldwide, which are far more extensive than most people know, for reasons that officials haven’t been asked to explain.

• More inclusive policies for women and LGBTQ personnel in the military.

In other statements, op-eds, and legislative proposals, Smith has staked out critical positions on other controversial issues:

• He and Rep. Eliot Engel, the New York Democrat who is likely to be the next chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, have co-sponsored a bill to cut off military supplies to Saudi Arabia for its brutal war in Yemen.

• He has denounced the Trump administration’s $716 billion defense budget as excessive, saying that $600 billion, if spent wisely, would probably be sufficient.

• He has called for more transparency from the Defense Department, noting its failure to produce witnesses for congressional hearings or to provide information to the media.

This is not to say that Smith’s chairmanship will herald dramatic changes in military spending, defense policy, or the Trump administration’s secretive ways. The Armed Services Committee, even with the Democrats in the majority, will remain a fairly conservative body. Smith will still have to wrangle out legislative disputes with the Senate Armed Services Committee, which will remain in the hands of hard-line Republican Chairman Jim Inhofe. Finally, the House has rarely been an innovative force in national-security matters, regardless of which party is in control.

Still, Trump has given the Pentagon carte blanche in setting its budgets and running its military operations, and the Republican-controlled Congress has followed suit in opening the floodgates. Even in the last few years of the Obama administration, congressional Republicans had little interest in attacking dubious projects or excess spending. The same went for Democrats, ever fearful of being tagged as “soft on defense” while U.S. troops were at war.

Now, with the wars in low profiles (even with their far-flung deployments, American troops are suffering few casualties), the Pentagon’s days of free-flowing funds could be over. Long ago, the congressional armed services committees used to pick over the defense budget routinely—questioning the need or cost-effectiveness of certain programs—regardless of which party was in power. In the past decade or so, they’ve done very little of this. The practice may soon be restored.

If Smith is unable to muster enough votes to cut the budget, kill certain programs, suspend certain operations, or halt assistance to the Saudis, he can at least call hearings, subpoena witnesses and documents, write reports, reveal what’s going on, and put alternative approaches on the agenda. Neither chamber of Congress has done even that much for quite a while.

Rep. Engels can be expected to conduct similar probes on the Foreign Affairs Committee. Some questions he could ask: What did Trump agree to in his one-on-one sessions at the Helsinki summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin, and at the Singapore summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un? What are Kim’s intentions in the new dialogue with the U.S. and South Korea? Is he just stringing us along? To what extent have Trump’s financial interests shaped his foreign policy? Why hasn’t the administration fully implemented congressionally authorized sanctions against Russia? What are the likely consequences—political, diplomatic, and military—of Trump’s travel ban and of his moves to withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal and the U.S.-Russia INF Treaty?

The House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence is likely to be a much livelier forum, with California Democrat Adam Schiff sure to step up investigations of Trump’s interests in, and possible collusion with, Russia. But on less-explosive matters, Schiff could make great headway in restoring the committee’s role of overseeing the U.S. intelligence community—its analyses, its covert operations, and its competence—a central task that the current Republican chairman, Trump loyalist Devin Nunes, has systematically ignored.

Some of these probes will enter realms that special counsel Robert Mueller is investigating, without necessarily raising the specter of an impeachment motion. More than that, the hearings could begin to lay out an agenda that the Democratic Party might adopt in 2020—not just for attacking Trump, but for constructing a positive platform.

The significance of all this should not be overstated. This will still be Trump’s government, by and large, especially on national security affairs, where presidents have freer reign by nature. The Senate will still be in Republican—which is to say, Trump’s—hands. Though the Democrats took back the House, they didn’t do so by sufficiently large-enough margins to persuade Republicans that they might be better off putting some distance between themselves and the man in the White House.

But a few flashlights will shine in places where, before, there was no interest in piercing the darkness. There will be challenges where, before, there was only submission. There might be at least one chamber of Congress doing what Congress normally does, and there’s not a small matter.