The seemingly impossible has happened: Congressional Democrats appear to be on track to pass a large spending bill that includes investments in climate and health care. On Sunday, the Senate passed the Inflation Reduction Act, the latest legislative iteration of President Joe Biden’s original Build Back Better policy vision. The bill now heads to the House and, if it successfully passes there, to the president’s desk for signature.
Setting aside the merits of the bill itself — and there are plenty of pieces diving into its substance — it is particularly interesting to compare this legislation’s journey to that of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). In short: Passing social spending was practically a miracle, while the much-larger military budget is poised to pass easily.
A TALE OF TWO BILLS
Efforts to line up Congress’ narrow Democratic majority behind Biden’s social spending legislative agenda have become something of a dramatic saga over the last year and a half. Most of the drama stems from conservative Democrats’ protests about the size of the spending package envisioned under Biden’s Build Back Better proposal, and behind-the-scenes efforts to negotiate down the price. Additionally, Republicans have mainly resorted to obstruction tactics and warnings about economic demise if Democrats continue to pass bills with high price points. Activists have had to protest, lobby, organize, and push for months to salvage the bill.
While passing social spending was practically a miracle, the much-larger military budget is poised to pass easily.
By contrast, when it came time for Congress to take up the NDAA, which authorizes annual military spending, not only did the Armed Services Committees of both chambers fully accept the Biden administration’s request for more than $800 billion in Pentagon spending for fiscal year 2023, they also tacked on tens of billions beyond what the administration even requested. With strong bipartisan backing, the House passed its version of the bill in July, generating a flurry of statements from members of both parties praising the bill.
Compare this to the social spending measures. The COVID stimulus package amounted to $1.9 trillion in spending over ten years and the bipartisan infrastructure package came out to $550 billion in new infrastructure investments over five years. The original Build Back Better proposal called for an investment of more than $3 trillion over ten years, then was whittled down to a $1.75 trillion proposal before being abandoned in favor of the rebranded Inflation Reduction Act, which includes $433 billion in new spending investments over ten years. As Stephen Semler at the Security Policy Reform Institute has pointed out, these bills pale in comparison to the massive military budget.
Yet, a grave concern for overspending among many members of Congress disappears when it comes to the Pentagon. Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) previously derided Build Back Better as “sweeping” and “mammoth” before determining he would not support it, and invoked his belief that “the greatest threat facing our nation” was “our national debt.” But Sen. Manchin sits on the Senate Armed Services Committee, and in June proudly voted — along with every other Committee member besides Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) — to add a whopping $45 billion to the military budget on top of what the Biden administration had requested. He declared that the legislation was “critical to combatting enemies seen and unseen,” and bragged that it “include[d] funding for numerous priorities for West Virginia.”
Representative Mike Rogers (R-Ala.), also a ranking member of the House Armed Services Committee, is another good example of someone with only fleeting concern for high price tags. He called Biden’s spending proposal “Build Back Socialist” as it would “cost the American taxpayers trillions of dollars.” But Rep. Rogers also introduced a (successful) NDAA amendment to add $25 billion on top of what Biden requested for the military last year, and vocally supported a similar effort to add $37 billion on top of the president’s request this year.
MONEY FOR WAR, BUT CAN’T FEED THE POOR
While the Senate version of the NDAA and the ultimate appropriations packages are still tied up in negotiations, there is no reason to believe that Congress will deviate from its regular routine of smoothly and promptly allocating military spending. This year, it will likely land at a rate that amounts to more than $8 trillion over the next ten years. For one final point of comparison, the National Priorities Project estimated that the increases added to the military budget in 2022 alone, if redirected, could have paid for the last version of the Build Back Better agenda before it became the Inflation Reduction Act. But, that is not the route that Congress chose.
To be sure, momentum is growing against the ever-rising military budget. And getting these human needs spending measures through a broken and dysfunctional Congress is a small miracle and laudable achievement. But at this moment it is impossible not to wonder what the United States might look like if its lawmakers were just as excited to throw money at ordinary people as they are to keep shelling it out for the wasteful and destructive Pentagon budget.
Elizabeth Beavers is a national security legal scholar and an independent consultant for peace and security advocacy.