Watch the military creep into massive infrastructure and budget bills

It’s as predictable as the sun rising and setting, but that doesn’t mean we have to accept the games that the Congress and Pentagon play.

Congress and President Biden are debating bills that would have the government spend a whole lot of money over the next decade, about $4 trillion to be precise. While these debates over infrastructure and domestic social programs do not, on their face, involve defense spending, budget watchdogs and anti-war activists alike should be on the lookout for war hawk efforts to sneak defense money into these massive spending packages. 

The first stage of debate over the bipartisan $1 trillion infrastructure bill should serve as a preview. As covered by the nonpartisan Taxpayers for Common Sense (TCS), lawmakers in the Senate included nearly half a billion dollars in their version of the infrastructure package for new Coast Guard spending, including $309 million to fulfill items on the Coast Guard’s unfunded priorities (or “wish”) list.

Now, in the scope of the total infrastructure package, that half a billion hardly qualifies as a drop in the bucket: $434 million out of around $566 billion in new budget authority, or seven one-hundredths of one percent. Compare the bill’s Coast Guard spending to the total Coast Guard budget in the current fiscal year, however, and you will find a substantial four-percent boost to the Coast Guard’s discretionary appropriations of nearly $11 billion in FY 2021.

Worse, lawmakers decided to fulfill many of the “wishes” the Coast Guard dropped in their lap after the Guard submitted its regular budget request for the upcoming fiscal year, a practice that budget and military watchdogs across the ideological spectrum have heavily criticized. Other pages of Responsible Statecraft further detail how lawmakers use and abuse this process to top up a defense budget that’s already much too large and unwieldy.

Unfortunately, Congressional Democrats’ pursuit of a $3.5-trillion reconciliation bill, 3.5 times as large as the infrastructure package, may provide additional opportunities for defense hawks in both parties to sneak defense spending priorities into legislative trains that have a good chance of leaving the station, gaining momentum, and reaching President Biden’s desk.

It’s unclear when, if, and how lawmakers will try to work in defense goodies, but Senate Democrats’ nine-page memo on the forthcoming reconciliation package offers some clues as to where interested parties should keep an eye out.

The Commerce Committee will have up to $83 billion to work with, including “investments in technology, transportation, and more.” Some of these dollars could flow to funding more Coast Guard projects, given that the Guard is under Commerce Committee jurisdiction. Also of note is the Energy Committee’s instruction to include, in their $198 billion pot of funds, “research infrastructure for DOE National Labs.” Three of those 17 labs fall under the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), which is part of the national defense budget and controls the nation’s nuclear arsenal. Finally, the Department of Defense (DoD) could see some funds sent their way for “pandemic preparedness” under the Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee’s $726 billion bucket, though this is less likely in light of the Committee chairwoman’s criticism of the Trump administration’s plans to make DoD (rather than the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention ) the lead distributor of COVID-19 vaccines.

Where the real problems could emerge, however, are with amendments to the bill. The Senate’s reconciliation process ensures a plethora of amendment votes under a process called “vote-a-rama,” and hawkish Senators have already used the process once this summer to mobilize support for a whopping $50 billion in additional defense funding.

The ringleaders of the process are Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.), the top Republican on the Senate Appropriations Committee; Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla., the ranking Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee; Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.), the leader of an effort to give the Navy an immediate, unregulated $21 billion pot of cash for shipyard infrastructure; and Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.). These four Senators introduced an amendment to the budget resolution vote-a-rama earlier in August that expressed support for adding $50 billion in defense funding to the $3.5 trillion reconciliation bill. They introduced the same amendment during the infrastructure bill debate.

Half of the funding would go to Wicker’s SHIPYARD Act, $4.5 billion would go to military depot modernization, $4 billion would go to military test ranges, $4 billion would go to military facilities maintenance, $3.85 billion to NNSA facilities, $2.5 billion to Army ammunition plants, $2.5 billion to 5G infrastructure, $2 billion to military construction projects, and $1.5 billion to per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) remediation. (Why is DoD involved in 5G? Good question.)

It would be one thing if these Senators were proposing to secure this funding now and then reduce the regular defense budget by a corresponding $50 billion. But they are not — in fact, they think President Biden’s defense budget proposal, an increase over Trump’s last defense budget, is “terrible.” These Senators very likely want their $50 billion amendment on top of the $778 billion defense budget the Senate Armed Services Committee just approved.

That’s why a coalition of fiscally conservative organizations called out this amendment as irresponsible. Fortunately, when the Shelby amendment came up for a vote during the last vote-a-rama, 53 of 100 Senators rejected the amendment, including three Republicans — Sens. Mike Braun (R-Ind.), Mike Lee (R-Utah), and Rand Paul (R-Ky.). These three Senators should be commended for sticking to their commitments to fiscal responsibility, even when faced with a spending proposal that was popular with fellow GOP colleagues.

The simple reality is that, for some defense hawks, the appetite for new spending knows no bounds. It explains why some lawmakers pursue a defense budget boost during non-defense debates (like infrastructure), and why — as Taxpayers for Common Sense has pointed out — these lawmakers would likely see as justified a $1 trillion annual defense budget just five short years from now.

And why not, a skeptic might ask, in a time of freewheeling government spending and legislative horse-trading? Perhaps the disturbing and devastating scenes from Afghanistan in recent weeks offer a warning. As the independent government watchdog tasked with monitoring America’s performance in Afghanistan just reported, the United States has spent nearly $1 trillion on and in Afghanistan over the past 20 years. As the U.S. military moves to end operations in that country, lawmakers need to reflect on the fact that  the Taliban are back in control (as they were 20 years ago), over 114,000 Afghans and 3,587 U.S. and allied lives have been lost.

It’s a devastating human toll that, yes, will also put U.S. taxpayers on the hook for additional and necessary costs for years to come, whether it’s increased spending to care for Americans who bravely served or additional State Department spending to resettle tens of thousands of Afghan citizens running for their lives.

Indeed, now is an opportune moment for lawmakers of all persuasions to rethink what our $750 billion annual defense budget does for America, its taxpayers, and the world. At a minimum, it should stop Congress from playing defense budget games with infrastructure and reconciliation bills.

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