Giving the DoD a $56 billion haircut

This is the week when Congress can get the scissors out — or not. Either way, the military budget is overdue for a makeover.

The time has come for consideration of the annual defense policy bill — the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA)— in the House of Representatives, and as is typical, members of Congress have submitted over 800 amendments to the House Rules Committee for consideration.

Few people have time to read through each one of those amendments, but two in particular deserve further consideration from lawmakers for their potential savings to the nation’s taxpayers.

One, amendment #397, is a reprisal of the now-annual efforts by Reps. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) and Mark Pocan (D-Wis.) to cut the defense budget by 10 percent across the board. A number of Democrats in the House have joined Lee and Pocan in co-sponsoring the amendment, which could save taxpayers tens of billions of dollars this year alone.

The amendment would apply a 10 percent cut to all programs and components funded by the NDAA, with the exception of personnel costs and the Defense Health Program (DHP). Take those programs out and you’re left with about $564 billion of the $768 billion defense topline in the NDAA, for a cut of about $56 billion. To offer a sense of the magnitude of such a cut, if lawmakers were to divvy up those savings and distribute an equal amount to each taxpayer in America, over 150 million people would get a check of over $350 each.

That’s not to say that’s what lawmakers should (or would) do with a defense cut. In fact, since a good chunk of that $56 billion is money that budget scorekeepers haven’t even accounted for in their projections for next year’s government spending, Congress might be best off agreeing to the $56 billion cut and leaving it at that. But the example above demonstrates that it’sno chump change.

A similar amendment — #602 from Reps. Lee, Pocan, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) — would cancel out the major budget boost the House Armed Services Committee just provided the Defense Department in their consideration of the NDAA. This amendment, should it pass, would save taxpayers $24 billion — again, no small dollar amount. It would also cancel out a huge increase to the defense budget that is not only unjustified  but would reward f weapons and shipbuilding  programs already beset by delays, cost overruns, and waste of taxpayer dollars.

It’s likely that one or both amendments will receive consideration on the House floor. Unfortunately, it would be irresponsible to suggest that the 10 percent cut effort has a chance of passing. Last year, a similar amendment from Reps. Lee and Pocan failed 93-324. Every Republican voted against it, along with more than half of Democrats (139 in total). Ninety-two Democrats and one independent (libertarian former Rep. Justin Amash of Michigan, a former Republican) voted in favor.

That said, Rep. Lee was also the only member to oppose the authorizations for the use of military force (AUMFs) in 2001 and 2002, a very lonely vote at the time. In 2021, the House finally voted on a bipartisan basis, 268 to 161, to repeal the 2002 AUMF for operations in Iraq. Public opinion and Congressional action change with time, and Democrats and Republicans should be tending to the urgency of reducing the defense budget to more sustainable levels.

Democrats have major spending ambitions, however, and they’re hunting for ways to pay for these ambitions. Though a raft of tax hikes have been proposed by the likes of President Biden and Speaker Nancy Pelosi, some Democrats could also consider paying for some of these programs with cuts to the defense side of the budget. One such blueprint would cut the defense budget by $338 billion over just four years — though many fiscal watchdogs would prefer to see such cuts devoted to deficit reduction.

Speaking of deficit reduction, plenty of Republicans should care about the runaway trajectory of defense spending as well. The nation is more than $28 trillion in debt, and there is no end to trillion-dollar deficits in sight. Solutions that get the budget closer to a long-term balance are going to have to require spending cuts everywhere — non-defense domestic spending alone won’t cut it. The Pentagon budget has to be on the table. Instead, defense hawks are putting us on track to spend an additional $1.2 trillion on defense than currently projected in just the next 10 years alone. That’s no proposal a fiscal conservative should agree to.

The Lee/Pocan amendment, and the Lee/Pocan/Ocasio-Cortez amendment, would make meaningful dents in a defense budget that has gone way too high. Their amendments are not the only strong ones offered, to be sure. Reps. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.) and Kurt Schrader (D-Ore.) have offered amendments to pare back the wasteful “wish lists” Congress gets from military leaders every year, while Democrats and Republicans have each offered amendments asking government watchdogs like the Government Accountability Office (GAO) to study areas of potential waste in the DoD budget.

But the  amendments cutting the budget may be lawmakers’ best shot this year to apply meaningful reductions to a defense topline that has gotten way out of hand. Congress should seize the opportunity before this year’s $768 billion budget turns into an $800 billion budget next year, to an $850 billion budget the year after that, and so on in perpetuity.

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