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Lucy and the NDAA

The Pentagon budget? Good grief!

Words: Diana Ohlbaum
Pictures: Falaq Lazuardi

Once again, progressives mounted a valiant effort to kick a Pentagon policy bill into shape, only to have it swiped away before the moment of impact. That sounds familiar. Senate progressives, and their allies, are perfectly cast as Charlie Brown. The NDAA is, of course, the football. But who exactly is Lucy?

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (NY) repeatedly tried to negotiate a deal for floor consideration of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), narrowing down the list of nearly 1,000 amendments submitted to two dozen up for a vote. Among those amendments were several high priorities for those seeking greater military accountability and restraint. These included a proposal by Senators Tim Kaine (VA) and Todd Young (IN) to repeal the 2002 law authorizing force against Iraq and an amendment by Senator Bernie Sanders to cut the topline Pentagon budget back to the level requested by the Biden administration – itself a $12 billion increase from the prior year.

While it would be easy to cast Senator Marco Rubio (FL) in the role of Lucy, since his objection dealt the final blow to a deal allowing Senate floor consideration of amendments to the bill, the die was cast well before then. Many of the amendments would have made the bill even worse, and House-Senate negotiators were always likely to drop important House-passed provisions, such as the one banning US military support for the Saudi-led war in Yemen, as they did in 2019 and 2020.

In truth, there have been many Lucys along the way.

The first are the chairs and ranking members of the House and Senate Armed Services Committees, who deem the enactment of an annual authorization bill to be more important than what’s actually in it. They nurture the myth that the NDAA is a “must-pass” piece of legislation, when, in reality, it is no more essential than the many other authorization bills that have fallen by the wayside. A full-scale State Department authorization bill, for example, has not been enacted since 2002. The version that was attached to this year’s NDAA contains helpful policy language but only authorizes appropriations for one out of the roughly three dozen line-item accounts included in the President’s Budget Request for FY 2022. The last comprehensive foreign assistance authorization was signed into law in 1985.

Leaders of the Armed Services Committees are rightfully concerned that without passing annual authorizing legislation, they will cede their influence over military policy to the appropriators, whose bill ultimately determines annual spending levels. However, neither authorizers nor appropriators have shown much appetite for halting the development of a weapon, no matter how overpriced or underperforming, or for challenging the assumptions around America’s expansive global footprint.

Progressives and restrainers have no leverage if, at the end of the day, leaders are content with legislation that fails to place meaningful constraints on Pentagon spending, nuclear weapons modernization, arms sales to human rights abusers, or foreign military interventions. Senate Armed Services Committee Chair Jack Reed (RI) called this year’s end-product “a great bill.” Helping the Armed Services Committees maintain their policy-setting role is of little interest to those seeking a more ethical and effective approach to national security if those committees don’t use their power to limit the Pentagon’s ever-expanding ambitions.

The second Lucy is Senate procedure, which has made the upper chamber so deeply dysfunctional that the NDAA is the only annual authorization bill to reliably reach the floor. As a result, it becomes the primary vehicle for senators to force votes on their pet issues – many of which have little or nothing to do with Pentagon policy. It is indeed a sad commentary that neither a State Department authorization bill nor a freestanding repeal of the 2002 Iraq Authorization for Use of Military Force, which has been favorably reported by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and garnered broad bipartisan support, including that of the Majority Leader, can be easily taken up and voted upon by the full Senate.

To avoid having our hopes for a better outcome dashed, year after year, we Charlie Browns must address the reasons why Lucy keeps snatching the ball away.

Much of the blame for the Senate’s dysfunction can be laid at the doorstep of the filibuster, which hogs time on the calendar and enables a minority of senators representing an even smaller minority of voters to exercise an effective veto on the will of the majority. If it weren’t for the filibuster, there would be multiple opportunities for votes on pressing issues, and senators wouldn’t need to offer amendments unrelated to the measure at hand. But the problem also stems from overreliance on obtaining unanimous consent to do the Senate’s business. At a time when there are narrow majorities, huge partisan divisions, and no political downside to obstructionism, allowing a single senator to bring business to a halt is sheer absurdity.

But the biggest Lucy of them all is the fear of being called the W-word.

No, it’s not “warmonger.” Regrettably, members of Congress are not worried about that. They find it politically advantageous to threaten death and destruction even though most of the key security challenges facing the United States – climate change, pandemic disease, crumbling infrastructure, extreme inequality, economic and racial injustice, gun violence – are only worsened by wars and militarism.

Nor is Congress terribly concerned about tolerating another W, “waste.” Congress continues to throw more money at the military, buying weapons that don’t work and aren’t needed, even though the Pentagon has never managed to pass an audit and squandered scores of billions in Iraq and Afghanistan. No, what members fear most is being seen as weak, as defined by the failure to use threats, intimidation, and violence to impose America’s will on the world.

To avoid having our hopes for a better outcome dashed, year after year, we Charlie Browns must address the reasons why Lucy keeps snatching the ball away. We must encourage progressive senators and representatives to sit on the defense committees. And we need to get more of them elected by passing voting rights legislation to roll back restrictions on the freedom to vote and ensure the protection of civil and human rights.

Reforming or eliminating the filibuster may be essential to preserving American democracy, but it won’t help restrain military spending without curbs on campaign contributions and the revolving door of defense contractors, Pentagon officials, lobbyists, and Capitol Hill staffers.

Finally, we must begin to tackle head-on the systemic racism that drives American exceptionalism and our ongoing quest for global military supremacy. The only way to rationalize the routine threat or use of lethal force in foreign policy is to ignore the tremendous harm it causes to innocent people at home and abroad and to deny its particularly heavy burden on communities of color. Elected officials should be far more worried about losing their seats because they failed to ensure voting rights, justice in policing, health care, income security, and critical infrastructure for their constituents than because they failed to line the pockets of defense contractors.

Diana Ohlbaum served as a congressional foreign policy advisor for more than 20 years, including as a senior professional staff member of the House and Senate Foreign Affairs/Foreign Relations Committees. She currently leads the foreign policy team at FCNL, the Quaker peace and justice lobby, and chairs the board of the Center for International Policy, a progressive foreign policy think tank.

Diana Ohlbaum

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