By an overwhelming margin, the House passed a bill to spend $778 billion on defense next year, $25 billion more than what President Joe Biden had requested. The Senate is expected to second the motion within days.
Yet no officials or lawmakers have spelled out why the budget—which includes $740 billion for the Pentagon and $28 billion for the Energy Department’s nuclear-weapons programs—needs to be quite this huge. (Another $10 billion is for defense-related activities by the FBI, Department of Homeland Security, the Coast Guard, and a few other agencies.)
Yes, China has expanded its military presence in the Pacific, and Russian forces are looming over Ukraine. But in the early 1980s, the Cold War peak in U.S. military spending, vast garrisons were deployed along both sides of the East-West German border, and the U.S. and Russia were engaged in an almost unbridled nuclear arms race. Today’s dangers don’t pose nearly that level of a military challenge.
Critics of government spending on domestic programs frequently complain about “throwing money at a problem.” Yet that is exactly what Congress is doing with the defense budget. When Biden submitted his infrastructure and Build Back Better plans, a few legislators from both parties got together with the White House to pare down their size, narrowing the definition of “infrastructure,” reordering priorities, and questioning the urgency of some needs. One can argue about the final result, but Congress subjected Biden’s plan to legitimate oversight and analysis.
There has been almost no oversight or analysis of this defense budget.
When Biden entered the White House, he submitted a bill that kept defense spending at the same level as President Trump’s, in part to elicit support from conservative Democrats (and maybe a few Republicans) for the massive increases in domestic programs. But many Democrats and all Republicans wanted still more for defense. The budget, with its $25 billion increase, breezed through the House on Tuesday by an extremely bipartisan 363-70 margin.
But look at what’s in that $25 billion bonus. Each year, the military services—the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marines (and now the Space Force as well)—prepare a list of “unfunded requirements,” which are weapons (or higher numbers of weapons) that they’d like to have but couldn’t fit in the budget limits set by the White House. Usually, no one takes this list seriously. At a House hearing last summer, Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was asked whether any of the items on the list were critical for countering China, terrorism, or other threats. Milley replied, “The answer is no, in my professional opinion. If they were critical, then they [would have been] higher on the priority list.”
And yet, in ladling an extra $25 billion on top of Biden’s already rather lavish budget, the House managers simply tacked on all of the unfunded requirements.
Even for the $753 billion that Biden initially requested, there was strikingly little examination—in the executive or legislative branch—of whether all this money was allocated in quite the right way. For instance, building more large aircraft carriers and destroyer ships might not be the best way to counter China’s naval expansion in the South China Sea. In fact, some military analysts think that it’s the worst way—that it heightens our vulnerability to the massive quantities of Chinese anti-ship missiles, which could have devastating impact on huge U.S. ships in a war. These analysts think it would be better to build larger numbers of smaller ships. I don’t know the solution to this problem—the optimal mix of big and small ships—but few officials or politicians are even asking the right questions. Those who are grappling with the issue seem to have no impact on budget debates—on what sorts of ships the Navy is actually building or Congress is funding—at all.
Many nuclear-weapons experts question the need to replace all 400 land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles with a new model. Some experts think we should greatly reduce the number of ICBMs—which are vulnerable to preemptive attack—or get rid of them entirely. The Biden administration is currently reviewing these and other issues for a “nuclear posture review,” which it will release sometime next year. Meanwhile, Biden requested $2.6 billion for initial spending on a new missile, and Congress went along.
I could go on like this for every aspect of the defense budget. I’m not saying all the decisions are wrong or all the threat-assessments are exaggerated. I am saying that almost no one has examined whether they might be.
The process didn’t used to be like this. Staffers in the congressional armed services and appropriations committees would examine each line item of the budget, check to see whether weapons programs were redundant, whether they’d performed well in tests, whether they aligned with national strategy. Some programs were slashed, some boosted, some modified.
By contrast, in the defense bill that passed this week, Congress put limits on just three weapons, all minor items still in the blueprint stage. Keep this in mind the next time a legislator talks about the need for fiscal discipline or the lack of money to do x, y, or z.
Congress did insert some interesting language in this bill that goes beyond the budget. It removes the authority of commanding officers to rule on claims of sexual assault, placing such cases in the hands of independent military prosecutors—a major victory for reformers and a change that Biden supported. It establishes an independent commission to scrutinize the entire 20-year course of the Afghanistan war and come up with conclusions and lessons. And it bars military purchases of any items made by forced labor in China (though it’s unclear how many such items are purchased now).
So Congress did show itself capable of asserting itself on certain policies—not just on how to spend nearly a trillion dollars on what a group of officers define as national defense.