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Getting anti-war, DoD cost-cutting lawmakers into powerful roles

Reps. Barbara Lee and Betty McCollum just took over two key sub-committees focused on foreign policy and defense spending.

Analysis | North America

The new 117th Congress has brought with it some hopeful signs for advocates of a less militarized foreign policy — one that puts the legislative branch back in charge of war policy and cuts back wasteful defense spending.

This week, Connecticut Democrat Rosa DeLauro, newly-installed Chair of the powerful House Appropriations Committee, announced the roster of the twelve new subcommittee chairs. Progressives, concerned that their foreign policy and national security priorities might be marginalized under the new Biden administration and with the razor-thin majority Democrats hold in the House, were encouraged by DeLauro’s nominations for subcommittee chairmanships.

Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) will chair the State and Foreign Operations subcommittee, which oversees funding for the State Department and USAID, among other programs, and Betty McCollum (D-Minn.) takes over the Defense subcommittee, which will oversee the Pentagon’s funding. Unlike every other House committee, appropriations subcommittee chairs are selected not by committee seniority, but by subcommittee seniority, meaning that both Rep. Lee and Rep. McCollum have committed significant parts of their careers in Congress to these issues. Both also have long and instructive track records.

Rep. Lee, who has served in Congress since 1998, is well known for her anti-war stances. She was the lone vote in the House against the Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF) of 2001. In the nearly two decades since, Lee has repeatedly fought to repeal both the 2001 AUMF and the 2002 AUMF, which authorized the Iraq war. In 2020, the House voted in support of Rep. Lee’s amendment to repeal the 2002 AUMF, but the measure was never taken up by the Republican-led Senate. Rep. Lee, however, will continue to spearhead efforts to repeal it going forward. On January 12, 2021, the Congresswoman announced that she would again introduce two bills to repeal the laws that have been used as justification by three administrations to deploy the military in at least ten countries.

“The House took a historic step in the last Congress to stop our endless wars in passing my amendment to repeal the outdated 2002 AUMF,” she wrote in her statement announcing the introduction of her bills. 

“It is far past time we remove this unnecessary authorization and put an end to the blank check wars.” 

Rep. Lee has also been a long-term advocate for reducing the military budget, voting last year for a 10 percent reduction in military spending. Though as chair of the State and Foreign Operations subcommittee, Lee will not be overseeing DoD’s budget, she has spoken about using her new position as a vehicle for reducing America’s over-dependence on a militarized foreign policy. 

“Among my top priorities on this committee will be investing in diplomacy, foreign assistance, and development programs, which must be at the forefront of our approach, leaving behind the military first approach of the last four years,” she said in a statement. Given the scale of challenges facing the United States in the near future, having a principled, consistent fighter against militarism and for global engagement could prove to be significant.

Betty McCollum has made a name for herself through her staunch support for Palestinian rights and her push to block any U.S. aid to Israel that is used to annex Palestinian land. But her record on defense spending is more mixed. She voted against the National Defense Authorization Acts in fiscal years 2015, 2016, 2017, and 2019, yet cast her vote in support of defense spending bills in 2018, 2020, and 2021. She also voted against the Pocan-Lee-Jayapal amendment that would have cut Pentagon funding for the upcoming fiscal year by 10 percent. Two of Rep. McCollum’s largest donors in the latest campaign cycle were defense industry giants Boeing and Lockheed Martin. 

“Wouldn’t it be refreshing if members swore off donors whose contracts and profits they oversee?” tweeted Joe Cirincione, distinguished fellow at the Quincy Institute and former president of the Ploughshares Fund. 

Still, McCollum has shown an ability to buck conventional wisdom on important foreign policy questions in the past, and takes over the defense subcommittee chair at a time when there is majority public support for a reduction in DoD’s budget. “Representative McCollum has a previous record of trying to oppose wasteful spending at the Pentagon,” Erica Fein, advocacy director at Win Without War, told me. “We’re hopeful that that's a sign she's open to meaningfully reduce the budget's topline and undo the damage done by Trump in this area.”

The appropriations committee is considered to be among the most powerful committees in Congress. Reps. Lee and McCollum will have the power to determine which spending bills for their departments and agencies will be heard in committee. They will have a key role not only in potentially moving government spending away from the military and towards diplomacy or other avenues, but also in determining how much funding specific programs will receive. 

When it comes to DoD, “one especially ripe target is the massive growth of the nuclear weapons budget,” according to Fein “Chair McCollum should take a hard look at canceling many of the Trump- and Obama-era nuclear weapons programs, like the new ICBM, that are dangerous, wasteful, redundant and not needed for security.” 

For Rep. Lee, priorities will likely include a return to U.S. cooperation on the global stage, as the international community looks to tackle the threat posed by the COVID-19 pandemic and climate change. 

Early indications of the Biden administration’s approach to national security have been mixed — his team has reiterated its campaign promise to end American support for the war in Yemen and will look to extend the New START treaty with Russia, but many of his nominees and appointees have been supporters of past wars and have taken a hawkish tone on China during recent hearings. But if Congress is willing and able to take back some of its foreign policy prerogatives from the executive, Lee and McCollum’s leadership offers some cause for optimism.  

Rep. Betty McCollum (Minn.)(Shutterstock/Miker) and Rep. Barbara Lee (Calif.)(Shutterstock/Denisha DeLane)
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