What congressional funding reveals about U.S. military priorities

AWE WHO observed that Congress over the past decade will be familiar with botched policy-making by the 11th hour. The National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) —The annual Defense Policy Bill and one of the few routine bipartite pieces of legislation — followed a familiar pattern. After months of delays in which one of the most important budget categories was put on hold in favor of other Democratic priorities, the Senate appeared to abandon its efforts to pass the $ 768 billion defense bill. dollars (which includes $ 147 billion to purchase new equipment) for fiscal year 2022. Leaders of both parties finally compromised and the law was passed by the House this week. In the midst of the rush, it was easy to forget what members of Congress think the gigantic defense budget should actually be for. Tracking the money reveals where lawmakers think America’s defense priorities lie.

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From a distance, the budget appears to be guided by a strengthened bipartisan consensus that America must take on China and spend more to do so. Take a closer look, and disagreements abound. Exactly how the country should compete with its Pacific rival divides the two sides. Even as America embarks on a new contest in Asia, lawmakers disagree with each other, or with President Joe Biden, on how to deal with other pressing issues, especially a revengeful Russia. Nor have they proven their ability to end the war on terror or to vote to continue it.

The free spending habits of the current Congress are bipartisan when it comes to security. Mr Biden’s proposed defense budget, released in May, included only a modest increase, an attempt to appease the doves on his left flank. But the rest of the legislature was not happy. Both houses added $ 25 billion to the president’s proposal. The Total Package is now the largest in a decade, the result of growing concern on both sides of the aisle in Congress that America is losing its military advantage, especially on the high seas.

For the US armed forces, competing with its Chinese competitors requires shedding old weapon platforms in favor of state-of-the-art ones, such as unmanned ships. Lawmakers have long been skeptical of this move to “divest to invest,” in Pentagon parlance. Bryan Clark of the Hudson Institute, a think tank, suggests this skepticism is reasonable. “They have a feeling the military has gone down this route over and over and said the next thing is so much better, but never happens.”

Following this logic, Congress gives the Pentagon a lot more money to buy proven designs and strengthen the US presence in the Pacific. In addition to securing 13 new ships, including three Arleigh Burke-class destroyers and two Virginia-class submarines, the law would allow the purchase of 347 planes, well above the Pentagon’s initial request of 290. This is based on a clear preference for the Navy and the Air Force. dating back to the end of the Obama administration, spending on the former has risen 62% since fiscal 2015. This, coupled with $ 7 billion for the Pacific Deterrence Initiative, a fund intended to strengthen the regional allies, is a measure of Congress’ interest in a robust military response to China’s growing power in Asia.

But beneath this consensus lie disagreements. The increase in defense spending clashes with the progressive left and the libertarian right, which privilege diplomacy, echoing the tendency to restraint in foreign policy which finds more and more support in Washington. the we The Innovation and Competition Act, an industrial policy bill framed in anti-Chinese terms and championed by Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, was separated from the Defense Bill after the opposition from some Republicans, who have spied on a new form of corporate welfare. An effort to ban trade in goods made from slave labor in China’s Xinjiang region met quiet resistance from the White House and helped derail negotiations in the Senate, to be excluded from the bill. compromise.

And while Congress is keen to spend money on new equipment, members are less enthusiastic about making the tough decisions needed to rebalance the armed forces and put them on a sound fiscal footing. Seamus Daniels of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a think tank, finds that personnel costs make up nearly a third of the Pentagon’s budget, a figure that continues to rise as America has deployed the fewest troops for decades. These obligations to current and retired warriors (who cost more due to health care expenses) crowd out funds for new weapons and research, but Congress is loath to tackle such a politically sensitive issue. Even as lawmakers push funding towards new systems, they show little appetite to ditch aging ones, such as the Ticonderoga-class cruisers, creating a continued drain on scarce resources. “If Congress allowed divestments to happen, the Air Force could acquire whatever it wanted without increasing the budget at all,” says Travis Sharp of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments.

Although Mr. Biden wants to focus on China, Congress has other ideas. As the president tries to both reassure European allies and calm tensions with Russia, lawmakers have taken a more maximalist approach. The defense bill allocates $ 4 billion to European defense, as well as $ 300 million to the Ukrainian armed forces, two sums higher than those requested by the president. While many lawmakers from both parties backed sanctions against companies affiliated with Russia’s Nord Stream 2 pipeline, Republicans proposed an amendment that would have overturned Mr Biden’s waiver of current sanctions, forcing Democrats to vote hard. The measure did not make the final text.

Politics also complicate efforts to deal with the lingering costs of the war on terror. The bill would oblige the Air Force to pursue acquisitions of QM-9 Reaper, a drone platform used in counterterrorism operations but ridiculed by the Air Force as expensive and vulnerable in high power conflict. Despite the US withdrawal from Afghanistan and a reduced footprint in the Middle East, Congress has kept funding for the military largely intact. Although a large bipartisan group of senators advocated the repeal of the 2002 redundant authorization for the use of military force against Iraq, the measure was left aside. The bill also reaffirms the long-standing provision prohibiting the president from transferring detainees from Guantanamo to courts in the Americas, ensuring that the prison will remain open.

Despite, or perhaps because of the broad support for defense spending, hundreds of amendments have been proposed in both houses of Congress, many of which have only a tangential relationship to defense. “It becomes a vehicle for everyone’s legislation,” says Clark. After passing the bill, Congress has yet to appropriate the funds it authorized in the NDAA. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin warned lawmakers in a public statement that failure to do so quickly would be catastrophic. Having racked up a big bill, Congress has yet to settle it.

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This article appeared in the United States section of the print edition under the headline “Money for Something”

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