The $717 Billion Defense Bill That Just Breezed Through the Senate Should Be a National Scandal

Democrats and Republicans rubber-stamped a severely bloated war budget.

Lindsay Koshgarian

(L-R) House Armed Services Committee Chairman Mac Thornberry (R-TX), Sen. James Inhofe (R-OK), House Armed Services Committee ranking member Rep. Adam Smith (D-WA) and Senate Armed Services Committee ranking member Sen. Jack Reed (D-RI) talk to journalists in the Dirksen Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill July 11, 2018 in Washington, DC. The committee members were participating in the FY 2019 National Defense Authorization Act conference meeting. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

With lit­tle debate or pub­lic atten­tion, the Sen­ate just fol­lowed the House in approv­ing $717 bil­lion for the nation’s mil­i­tary, mean­ing the bill is head­ed for the president’s sig­na­ture. The pas­sage is no sur­prise. The Nation­al Defense Autho­riza­tion Act is one of the few pieces of fed­er­al bud­get leg­is­la­tion that sails through every year, with­out fail, on a bipar­ti­san basis.

The military authorization bill must become a place for dissent and discussion.

Yet, the bill deserves fierce debate — and dis­sent. At $717 bil­lion, the pack­age pro­vides a his­tor­i­cal­ly high mil­i­tary bud­get. By my cal­cu­la­tions based on num­bers from the Office of Man­age­ment and Bud­get, in 1997, after Cold War spend­ing was ratch­eted down from its Rea­gan-era peak, mil­i­tary spend­ing was $386 bil­lion after adjust­ing for infla­tion. By the height of spend­ing dur­ing the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, it had more than dou­bled to $799 bil­lion. Yet today, despite mas­sive troop draw­downs and mul­ti­ple dec­la­ra­tions of vic­to­ry from the war on ter­ror, mil­i­tary spend­ing in 2019 will remain $268 bil­lion more than it was before the start of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.

In oth­er words, U.S. war spend­ing remains severe­ly bloat­ed, as spend­ing on vital pub­lic goods — like edu­ca­tion and water sys­tems — falters.

A win for arms manufacturers

That a $717 bil­lion spend­ing pack­age could pass with so lit­tle debate or con­tention is a symp­tom of our elect­ed lead­ers’ def­er­ence to the Pen­ta­gon. But it’s also a sign of a seem­ing­ly unre­lat­ed old adage: It’s the econ­o­my. In too many instances, old-fash­ioned pork and provin­cial inter­ests are the real motivations.

So, what is the mil­i­tary buy­ing, and why? And just as impor­tant, what isn’t the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment buy­ing as it hoards cash for the military?

One answer is that the bill rep­re­sents a big win for weapons con­trac­tors, pro­vid­ing funds for 77 new F‑35 jet fight­ers — the Lock­heed Mar­tin show horse that has been in devel­op­ment for near­ly 20 years and is bil­lions of dol­lars over bud­get. Even mil­i­tary spend­ing cham­pi­on Sen. John McCain, for whom the bill is named, has called the jet fight­er a scan­dal and a tragedy” for its sched­ule and bud­get problems.

An ear­li­er House ver­sion of a defense spend­ing bill had increased the num­ber of F‑35 fight­ers to 93: 16 more than the Pen­ta­gon asked for. That bill, which is no longer under con­sid­er­a­tion, came from a sub­com­mit­tee chaired by Rep­re­sen­ta­tive Kay Granger (R‑Texas), whose dis­trict is home to a key Lock­heed facil­i­ty where the F‑35 is made.

The bill also includes funds for 13 new ships, three more than the Navy asked for. The jus­ti­fi­ca­tion for two of the three addi­tion­al ships was open­ly eco­nom­ic: The bill pro­vides fund­ing for three new ships of the same kind as a Navy ship that caused a minor scan­dal when it was strand­ed in ice off the coast of Mon­tréal this win­ter. A con­gres­sion­al staffer involved with the defense bill nego­ti­a­tions com­ment­ed that autho­riz­ing just one ship would be dam­ag­ing to the two con­struc­tion yards” in Wis­con­sin and Alaba­ma, where the ships are built. Like the F‑35, the ship is also made by Lock­heed Mar­tin, the biggest fed­er­al con­trac­tor with more than $44 bil­lion in mil­i­tary con­tracts in 2017.

Among new ini­tia­tives, the bill pro­vides $65 mil­lion for a new nuclear weapons pro­gram, that would repur­pose exist­ing weapons into low-yield” weapons, com­pared to most of the nuclear war­heads the Unit­ed States has today. But, these low-yield” weapons would be com­pa­ra­ble in pow­er to the weapon the Unit­ed States dropped on Hiroshi­ma, and equal to rough­ly 1,000 of the con­ven­tion­al MOABs, or Moth­er of All Bombs” that Trump autho­rized for its first-ever com­bat use in Afghanistan in 2017. The new weapons are like­ly to be adapt­ed from Tri­dent mis­siles, made of course by none oth­er than Lock­heed Martin.

In a few instances, rea­son pre­vailed over prof­li­gate spend­ing. The fig­ure of 77 F‑35 fight­ers is too high, but it’s bet­ter than the 93 the House sub­com­mit­tee rec­om­mend­ed. The Sen­ate ver­sion of the autho­riza­tion bill placed mod­est lim­its on the president’s mil­i­tary parade, requir­ing that no troops be deferred from real mil­i­tary needs to march through the streets of our nation’s cap­i­tal. And per­haps most sig­nif­i­cant from a spend­ing per­spec­tive, the Sen­ate – though not the House – deferred the president’s repeat­ed request to add a whole new branch of the armed ser­vices: the so-called Space Force.

Run­away mil­i­tary spending

As is usu­al­ly the case, the bill passed with wide bipar­ti­san majori­ties in both the House (35954) and the Sen­ate (8710). If there is one thing sacred in U.S. fed­er­al bud­get­ing, it is the mil­i­tary budget.

But, while the pol­i­tics may pave the way for seem­ing­ly unend­ing mil­i­tary spend­ing, one inter­est­ing pat­tern emerged from the votes. Among the 10 no” votes in the Sen­ate were four of the five most-often men­tioned Demo­c­ra­t­ic pres­i­den­tial men­tions: Sen­a­tor Eliz­a­beth War­ren (Mass), Sen­a­tor Bernie Sanders (Vt.), Sen­a­tor Kamala Har­ris (Calif.) and Sen­a­tor Kirsten Gilli­brand (N.Y.). Sen­a­tors Sanders and Gilli­brand both vot­ed no on the bill last year, but the oth­ers are new con­verts. Sen­a­tor Cory Book­er (D‑N.J.), who is also often men­tioned as a pos­si­ble can­di­date, vot­ed yes. Could the pol­i­tics of a pres­i­den­tial race help focus ques­tions about the Unit­ed States’ run­away mil­i­tary spend­ing and dan­ger­ous new weapons programs?

It’s a dif­fi­cult ques­tion. The eco­nom­ics of the bill can trap usu­al­ly-pro­gres­sive leg­is­la­tors. Sen­a­tor War­ren vot­ed no this year, but last year her yes vote was trum­pet­ed by a state­ment cham­pi­oning fund­ing for Hanscom and West­over Air Force bases, both in Massachusetts.

A heavy price

The tragedy is that the short-term eco­nom­ic gains from mil­i­tary fund­ing often come at the expense of more mean­ing­ful jobs gains that could come through invest­ing in health care, edu­ca­tion, clean ener­gy and more. It’s worth a look at what could be, if those 10 no” votes mul­ti­plied and the mil­i­tary had to bud­get more carefully.

What if the war on ter­ror were to real­ly end, and the mil­i­tary bud­get returned to its post-Cold War, pre‑9/​11 days, aver­ag­ing about $415 bil­lion a year?

That would save rough­ly $300 bil­lion a year — a sum that could finance Sen­a­tor Sanders’ plan for free col­lege and help address the country’s back­log of unfund­ed infra­struc­ture needs — includ­ing water sys­tems, roads, bridges, elec­tric­i­ty and schools.

The mil­i­tary autho­riza­tion bill must become a place for dis­sent and dis­cus­sion. Rub­ber stamp­ing ever-grow­ing mil­i­tary spend­ing is good for the Lock­heed Mar­tins of the world, but the rest of us pay a heavy price.

Lind­say Koshgar­i­an is the pro­gram direc­tor of the Nation­al Pri­or­i­ties Project at the Insti­tute for Pol­i­cy Studies.
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