In December, Congress passed the 2023 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). The annual bill setting spending guidelines for the Pentagon has followed a common trajectory each year since the Great Recession. Every year the president, regardless of party, requests significantly more for the Pentagon than the previous year. Congress then tacks on even more money to this enormous sum. Finally, regardless of which party has the majority, it passes overwhelmingly. You can truly set your watch to it.
As in years past, this year Congress increased the already enormous budget request from the president by an additional $45 billion to a total of $858 billion, a full $80 billion more than was authorized last year. For comparison’s sake, the once-in-a-generation infrastructure bill Congress passed last year outlays about $100 billion per year. Before the end of this decade, it is almost a certainty that the Pentagon will be getting over $1 trillion every year.
Why is it that Congress and many Democrats continually bestow absurd sums to the one federal agency that has never passed an audit? Conventional wisdom says it is good electoral politics to write blank checks for the Pentagon. Defense writers in particular paint any vote against the Pentagon’s budget as political malpractice. The majority of the political consulting class, and by extension the candidates and members of Congress they advise, came of age in the wake of 9/11 and are still waging the political battles of the past. Most members fear the attack ad that says they’re “weak on defense,” so they vote for the biggest budget number they’re presented.
But does that conventional wisdom stack up with reality?
In 2020, co-chairs of the Defense Spending Reduction Caucus Reps. Barbara Lee and Mark Pocan introduced an amendment to cut the Pentagon’s budget by 10%. It lost overwhelmingly 93-324. But something interesting happened that fall when voters went to the polls. Of the 93 members that voted to slash the Pentagon’s budget 85 stood for re-election. All 85 won.
Earlier this year, Representative Lee again offered an amendment to cut the Pentagon’s budget by $37 billion, back to the level in President Biden’s budget request. This time her measure got 151 ayes, including 14 Republicans. One hundred and twenty-nine of those members stood for re-election in November and voters again, overwhelmingly, rewarded them with re-election. Members of Congress that voted to cut the Pentagon’s budget went 128-1 in 2022.
You might be tempted to think that these races must have all been in gerrymandered, safe Democratic districts. But 13 of the 14 Republicans that voted to cut the Pentagon’s budget ran for re-election and won. Four Democrats that voted to cut the Pentagon’s budget resided in districts deemed “toss ups” by the nonpartisan Cook Political Report. They all won. In fact, the only member that lost re-election was a casualty of redistricting. In 2020, his district was rated Lean Democrat but after a commission changed the maps in New Jersey his district became Lean Republican. Further, voting for robust Pentagon spending didn’t guarantee electoral success. Four members, two from each party, voted for the full $858 billion ran in “toss up” districts and lost their bids for re-election.
Large Pentagon budgets are treated as a foregone conclusion. The political class believes that being ‘strong’ on security means writing the Pentagon a blank check, despite zero evidence that taxpayer dollars are handled with care or respect (actually significant evidence of the opposite). But maybe voters understand more than consultants are willing to give them credit for. As former Defense Secretary Robert Gates said, “If the Department of Defense can’t figure out a way to defend the United States on half a trillion dollars a year, then our problems are much bigger than anything that can be cured by buying a few more ships and planes.” Maybe voters understand that true security doesn’t begin and end with the Pentagon’s budget – it includes the ability to keep our loved ones safe during a global pandemic, to withstand and bounce back from climate disasters, to be able to keep food on the table and a roof over your head. And they want representatives in Washington who understand that too and who aren’t afraid to stand up for it. The 2020 and 2022 elections proved that elected officials can stand up against obscene Pentagon budgets and keep their jobs. Hopefully, the new generation of Congressional leadership takes note, and it informs the way they govern moving forward.