Sometimes, a surprise is not a surprise. In recent years, the US defense budget has skyrocketed. Last year, for example, Congress added $44.6 billion to the Pentagon budget compared to an already sky-high Biden administration request. As a result, the funds appropriated to the Department of Defense last year increased by a colossal $76 billion from the previous year. In fact, the US defense budget is well above the peak of the Vietnam War after adjusting for inflation.
The push to shovel more money into the Pentagon has been led primarily by Republicans, such as House Armed Services Committee Chairman Mike Rogers (R-Ala.) but supported by most Republicans and many Democrats as well. Rogers crowed last year about the annual defense authorization bill as a “bipartisan and bicameral agreement that makes the investments our military needs to maintain overmatch with China.” Certainly, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine added gasoline to the defense fire.
Recently, there has been a reaction against the drive to add more money for defense. The true surprise: much of the change of heart is coming not from Democratic doves but from Republican hawks. Given recent trends, the reversal may seem abrupt, but should not be considered shocking when there have been warnings about the growth of defense spending for years.
Most shocking has been an article in “The American Conservative” by Kevin Roberts, the president of the ultra-conservative Heritage Foundation. That surprise might only be topped if Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes decided to trade in his football for pickleball.
Roberts wrote about “out-of-control” spending and charged, “Congress accepted the DC canard that a bigger budget alone equals a stronger military.” He added, “Congress needs to put away its kid gloves and put the Department of Defense and other agencies alike under the knife to excise wasteful spending.”
Wow! Finally, something politicians across the spectrum can agree on: there is money being wasted. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) could have written those lines. And Roberts wrote this after talking with several members of Congress.
These Republicans have been shocked by the money recently lavished on the Pentagon, which certainly appears excessive to doves but perhaps hawks as well.
Then there is Rep. Ken Calvert (R-Calif.), the new chair of the House Defense Appropriations Subcommittee, a key position to influence the direction of defense spending. While less radical than Roberts, Calvert asserted that he “is ready for some disruption at the Pentagon.” Calvert mentioned some of his goals, such as cutting the civilian workforce at the Pentagon, which now numbers 700,000, and working to lower the cost of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, the world’s most expensive weapons program.
The deepest cuts have been promoted by former acting Secretary of Defense Christopher Miller, who served in the last months of the Trump administration. Miller has called for fundamentally overhauling the defense budget “to the point at which its military spending could be cut in half.” In a new book, he wrote that the military “is too big and bloated and wasteful.”
Other calls for cuts have come from freshman GOP Senator and former Secretary of Interior Ryan Zinke (R-Mont.) but are focused on cutting the Pentagon’s workforce. A bipartisan group including conservatives Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT), Sen. Mike Braun (R-Ind.) and Rep. Tom McClintock (R-Calif.), and liberals Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.) has called for ending “wish lists.”
WHY THE CHANGE OF HEART?
Certainly, some of the incentives for defense cuts come from Republicans who want to clamp down on spending in general, including for domestic programs, such as education and health care. House Republicans in particular are opposing President Joe Biden’s call to raise the federal debt ceiling without dramatic cuts in spending and may feel a need to toss defense into the mix.
Another possibility: these Republicans have been shocked by the money recently lavished on the Pentagon, which certainly appears excessive to doves but perhaps hawks as well. They may be dazed that the defense is nearing the annual trillion-dollar mark. After all, “Today’s Pentagon is approaching a 13-figure annual budget.”
Although outside the defense budget, some in Congress are also concerned about the United States’ all-out assistance to Ukraine in its struggle against Russia’s invasion of its former Communist bloc country. That ambivalence is reflected in public polling: a January 2023 Pew Research Center poll of 5,512 adults found that 40% of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents say the US is providing too much support to Ukraine. These mixed views are reflected among GOP Members of Congress. Those with doubts about the United States’ solid support for Ukraine also tend to see European allies not picking up a larger share of weapons and aid to Ukraine.
What can we expect to be the result in Congress from these revised views? Who knows? In my 50-year career working with Congress, I have learned that those who try to guess what Congress will do and when it will do it are doomed to be saddled with bad predictions. It is, however, refreshing to note that at least some Republicans are interested in reviving their reputation as the party of fiscal responsibility.
But it is clear that there is increasing concern and churn among some key Republicans about the rising military budget. How persistent these Republicans will be and what kind of reaction they will get from key Armed Services and Defense Appropriations Committees and from rank-and-file Republicans is unknown. Republicans now control half of Congress, and they should be interested in exercising oversight of the defense budget and scrutinizing every penny flowing to the big five-sided building. This, not freewheeling budget increases, will make the country’s defense stronger, and it should be no surprise that those calling for a strong defense are interested.
John Isaacs is a Senior Fellow at the Council for a Livable World and Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation.