For all the attention focused in the past few days on the tensions between left-wing freshman House Democrats and the party’s more moderate leaders—not to mention President Donald Trump barreling into the middle of the fight like a racist Kool-Aid man—many may have missed that the party actually unified late last week around a strikingly progressive piece of legislation. Surprisingly, it was the National Defense Authorization Act, not exactly known as a forum for progressive policymaking.
The NDAA, the annual bill that sets the budget for the Department of Defense, passed the House of Representatives last Friday by a vote of 220–197. Not a single Republican voted for it; only eight Democrats voted against it.
Why the partisan split? For one thing, at $733 billion, it was $17 billion less than the amount the White House requested, and the version passed by the Senate last month. It also included a number of significant anti-war amendments. One, by the odd couple pair of lefty California Rep. Ro Khanna and Trumpist Rep. Matt Gaetz, would block funding for a war with Iran. Another by veteran anti-war Rep. Barbara Lee would repeal the 2002 Authorization for the Use of Military Force against Iraq. Yet another would cut off funding for U.S. support to the Saudi-led war in Yemen and prevent Trump from using emergency powers to transfer weapons to the kingdom. The bill also addresses a host of other progressive priorities, from climate change preparedness to reversing Trump’s transgender troop ban to preventing ships and bases from being named after figures from the Confederacy.
This NDAA highlights the degree to which anti-war sentiment is becoming mainstream among House Democrats. It follows a vote in June on a measure to repeal the 2001 AUMF, which was passed in the wake of 9/11 and has been used as the legal basis for an ever-expanding list of military operations in the years since, and a War Powers Resolution in April ending support for the war in Yemen.
Tellingly, the few Democratic dissenters on the NDAA were not hawkish moderates, but lefties—including the four-member “squad” and Barbara Lee—who are still not comfortable spending $733 billion on the military, no matter what limitations the money comes with.
The party’s anti-war drift probably hasn’t happened because left-wing pacifists have taken over the party. If anything, moderate military veterans were a bigger factor in last year’s Democratic takeover than democratic socialists. As Mikie Sherrill, a Navy veteran and newly elected congresswoman from New Jersey told the New York Times about the NDAA vote, “I have people in my caucus that do not believe in muscular foreign policy and muscular national defense like I do.”
The idealistic view of these votes is that they’re an attempt to wrest back Congress’ oversight power over military action after years of deference to the presidency. Even many members who are not against military action in principle are alarmed by the prospect of how this administration might use it and want to set up some safeguards.
The cynical view is that these measures are simply pretty popular. These days, Democratic voters—and Republican ones for that matter—are much more pacifist than most of their elected officials.
The votes are also unlikely to have much real-world impact, either, making support for them largely risk-free. Many if not all of the anti-war measures are likely to be stripped from the NDAA when it is reconciled with the Senate’s version of the bill in the coming weeks. The Yemen War Powers resolution did manage to pass the Senate, amid the furor over the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, but not by a large enough margin to survive Trump’s veto pen.
The test for whether Congress is actually exercising oversight over foreign policy and national defense, and whether the anti-war shift is real, is whether Congress will still pass these measures when they actually have a chance of being implemented. That will only happen if Democrats still vote for them when they restrict the actions of a Democratic president.