The Great Washington Divide Over the Defense Budget

by March 2022
U.S. President Joe Biden’s State of the Union address at the U.S. Capitol in Washington. Photo credit: REUTERS.

Vladimir Putin did what was seemingly impossible: He united Democrats and Republicans against him. The war in Ukraine also had the effect of forcing an otherwise reluctant Biden administration to seek additional funds for the defense budget to support the beleaguered Kyiv government. Initially, the White House had planned to request $3.5 billion for the Department of Defense, as well as $2.9 billion for the State Department for both military and humanitarian assistance. While the administration’s request for State Department funds was in addition to those it had previously included in its fiscal year 2022 budget request, those identified for DoD were simply a reallocation of already budgeted defense dollars. In other words, the Biden administration was prepared to transfer monies from within the defense budget to support its assistance to Ukraine. In effect, it was reducing the budget that it had initially proposed. Not surprisingly, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell promptly rejected the administration’s proposal for DoD support to Ukraine; as did many Democrats.

>> Window on Washington: Read more from Dov S. Zakheim

The Biden administration finally relented and altered the actual proposal it sent to Capitol Hill. It increased its request to $4.8 billion for defense funds to support Ukraine. The White House designated these funds as being in addition to the DoD base budget; at the same time, it increased its request for the State Department by two-thirds, to $5 billion. On March 11, when the House and Senate finally approved a bipartisan spending bill for fiscal year 2022, more than five months after the fiscal year had already begun on October 1, the so-called Omnibus Appropriation actually included $13.6 billion to support Ukraine. Of that sum, however, $6.5 billion was to replenish the stocks of weapons that the military had transferred to the Kyiv government, as well as to cover the cost of additional military operations, including the dispatch of nearly 10,000 troops to buttress the American presence in the territory of its central and eastern European NATO allies.

The Biden administration had seriously underestimated both the size of the defense budget that it hoped that the Congress would approve and funding levels to support Ukraine.

Despite the clear bipartisan support for Ukraine, however, the administration continued to prioritize domestic programs over those for national defense. The Democratic leadership in the House of Representatives became hostages to their party’s left wing and, in some instances, even to the much smaller group of four, later five, far-left Democratic Socialists who call themselves “the Squad.” The House Progressive Caucus numbers 100 members; progressives therefore could, and did, block movement on legislation when they chose to do so. Thus, the progressives’ determination to link Biden’s popular but costly ($1.3 trillion) infrastructure bill to the even more costly “Build Back Better” proposal, which included almost all of their particular priorities, delayed the passage of the infrastructure bill for the better part of six months.

While the fight over Build Back Better continued to rage, the divided houses of Congress were engaged in another major spending battle, this time over the size of the administration’s proposed budget for fiscal year 2022 and its allocation of resources for defense. The White House Interim National Security Strategy, released in March 2021, defined national security in the broadest possible terms, relegating the traditional concept of defense to only a short portion of the text. The document assigned high priority to addressing “a global pandemic, a crushing economic downturn, a crisis of racial justice, and a deepening climate emergency.” It fused Democratic domestic priorities with those of national security, arguing not only the need “to redefine America’s economic interests in terms of working families’ livelihoods, rather than corporate profits or aggregate national wealth” but also “advance[ing] gender equality, LBGTQI+ rights, and women’s empowerment as part of our broader commitment to inclusive economic growth and social cohesion.”

Defense requirements and budgets occupied only two pages in the 23-page document. Moreover, the Office of Management and Budget Fact Sheet, highlighting the key elements of the president’s fiscal year 2022 budget, did not mention defense at all, much less the need to combat threats to American interests worldwide.

The details of the president’s budget proposal reflected the White House’s new index of priorities. The administration asked Congress to approve a defense budget of $715 billion, including emergency supplemental spending. This sum amounted to an increase of just 1.6% in nominal terms and, when accounting for inflation, was a real decline from the previous year’s approved budget. Moreover, as inflation began to spike while Congress was debating the budget proposal, the president’s defense request declined even further in real terms. In contrast, the president’s budget asked for a real increase in nondefense programs of approximately 16%.

The planned request was actually of a piece with the Biden administration’s overall rather negative attitude toward defense spending. In addition, the administration stressed elements of the defense budget that did not actually enhance military capabilities. These included a commitment to increased diversity in the military and ending sexual harassment. The budget request included $617 million for what the administration called “preparing for, adapting to and mitigating climate change.” This sum was well beyond the levels that the DoD really needed, such as protecting naval facilities from flooding and air bases from the worst effects of hurricanes. The budget also included over $500 million for “COVID-19 and pandemic preparedness,” although it was not at all clear why so large a sum was needed from the Defense Department, as opposed to other government agencies, as a hedge against future pandemics.

The congressional response, however, was to increase defense spending to a level well above the administration’s request. The National Defense Authorization Act provided $740 billion for the DoD, an increase of $25 billion. Progressives in the House had bitterly opposed the increase. Indeed, they had sought a 10% decrease in defense spending, but their amendment to that effect was soundly defeated. The defense authorization stalled in the Senate, however.

Appropriations for defense—that is, approval of actual spending—got caught up in the stalemate over the entire budget for fiscal year 2022. As noted, the fiscal year 2022 budget focused heavily on social programs, which Republicans were reluctant to approve in toto. Since appropriations require 60 votes for closure of debate and a vote of approval by the Senate, the Democrats did not have enough votes to get the budget passed. As a result, as had been the case for almost all of the previous decade, the October 1 fiscal year began without a new budget. Instead, the Congress passed a “continuing resolution” to avoid a government shutdown.

U.S. President Joe Biden Delivers Remarks On U.S. Assistance To Ukraine. Photo credit: Rod Lamkey/POOL via CNP/INSTARim via Reuters Connect.
U.S. President Joe Biden Delivers Remarks On U.S. Assistance To Ukraine. Photo credit: Rod Lamkey/POOL via CNP/INSTARim via Reuters Connect.

A continuing resolution enables the government to continue to function and avoid possible default on its payments. With very few exceptions, however, such a resolution does not enable the government to initiate new programs, termed “new starts.” That meant that in practice, the government was functioning on the basis of Trump’s fiscal year 2021 program, as opposed to that of Biden for the following fiscal year. It also had serious implications for national defense, because planned new programs, intended to maintain America’s critical technological lead over China, could not be initiated, while increases in ongoing programs, such as for F-35 fighter aircraft, could not be implemented either.

The continuing resolution afforded Republicans and Democrats more time to resolve their differences and pass and appropriate funds for fiscal year 2022. Unfortunately, they were not able to do before the resolution terminated on December 3, 2021. Indeed, two other continuing resolutions had to be approved before the fiscal year 2022 appropriation, totaling $1.5 trillion dollars, finally passed in the House on March 9 and the Senate the following day.

The Democrats were able to increase spending on domestic programs substantially, but nowhere nearly as much as their progressive wing had sought. The bill which President Biden signed on March 1, provided for $730 billion for domestic programs, the largest increase in four years. It provided for $782 billion for defense, not only well above what Biden had initially requested, but even above that which the Armed Services Committees had approved only a few months earlier. Indeed, the increase in defense and nondefense programs were close: Nondefense spending grew by $46 billion or 6.7% while defense programs rose by $42 billion, a 5.6% increase.

The congressional appropriation for fiscal year 2022 appeared to indicate that the more extreme elements in both parties were losing their grip, ever so slightly, over the majority of their colleagues. Progressives, who had sought a budget decrease, saw the defense budget rise far beyond the administration’s initial request. Those on the far right were equally frustrated. For example, the appropriation legislation overrode the opposition of Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky, who had blocked funding for Israel’s Iron Dome program for many months. Unlike members of “the Squad” who opposed funding for the Iron Dome because they simply were against further aid to Israel, Paul did not oppose the program per se. He merely wanted it to be funded with monies originally earmarked for assistance to Afghanistan. Neither the Squad members nor Paul got their way; the appropriation included $1 billion to fund the Iron Dome.

The appropriation act also included the Israel Relations Normalization Act, which would seek to support the 2020 agreements between Israel and four Arab states. Texas Senator Ted Cruz (R) had opposed language in the act that supported a two-state solution to Israel’s dispute with the Palestinians, which has been longstanding American policy. The act had initially won lukewarm support from the Biden administration, and even less support from the progressives, which had identified these agreements with the Trump administration, rather than seeing them as a major step forward toward peace in the Middle East.

The Biden administration had seriously underestimated both the size of the defense budget that it hoped that the Congress would approve and funding levels to support Ukraine. It also overestimated the congressional appetite for spending more money on COVID-19 programs beyond the $1.9 billion American Rescue Plan that the Congress had passed in March 2021.

Even as late as February, some analysts had expressed fears that Congress would not be able to approve an appropriation for the fiscal year 2022 at all, and that one or more continuing resolutions would extend until the beginning of fiscal year 2023. One reason for such pessimism was the upcoming 2022 congressional elections, which most polls indicated would result in a significant Republican majority in the House, and possibly a majority in the Senate as well. The prospect of returning to power in Congress, it was thought, would lead Republicans to obstruct any of the Biden administration’s initiatives beyond the American Recovery Act and the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act that passed in 2021. Nevertheless, bipartisan concern over the need to increase the defense budget in the face of Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, as well as an agreement to accept increases in domestic spending commensurate with those for defense, led both parties to come to an agreement in March 2022.

At the end of the day, however, the government was unable to agree on a budget for five months after the beginning of the fiscal year. Nor is there any indication that Congress and the administration will reach agreement in time for the passage of a fiscal year 2023 budget before it begins on October 1. Continuing resolutions have become a congressional addiction.

In a January 12, 2022 hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee, DoD leaders outlined the impact of these resolutions on the department’s ability to operate effectively. David Berger, Commandant of the Marine Corps, summed up the common concern of all the Chiefs of Staff as well as of the civilian leadership of DoD: “Continuing Resolutions are backward looking, destabilizing and decelerating. . . . Future budget certainty—adequate, stable and predictable funding—is the single most effective way to maintain critical strategic momentum as we compete with the pacing threat and enable investment in the force design and modernization required to prevent or prevail in future conflicts.”

Virtually all members of Congress voice their agreements with DoD’s concerns. Yet they are unlikely to do much to alleviate them. Party leaders blame each other. A primary system that radical activists exploit, coupled with the maladjustment of congressional districts, will continue to bring to Congress, and particularly to the House, members who have no inclination to compromise with their counterparts on the other side of the aisle. A deeply divided nation is also likely to produce tiny, unstable majorities in the Senate. Some legislation will win bipartisan support, but most will not. As a result, the laments of America’s military leaders will go unheeded, unless and until America faces a crisis even more threatening than that of Ukraine. Should this happen, it may finally goad legislators into performing one of the most important tasks that the citizenry expect of them, namely, to provide the government with the funds it needs in a structured and timely manner.

>> Window on Washington: Read more from Dov S. Zakheim

Dov S. Zakheim
Dov S. Zakheim is Chair of the Board of Advisors of the JST, a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, and Vice Chair of the Foreign Policy Research Institute. He is a former US under secretary of defense (2001–2004) and deputy under secretary of defense (1985–1987).
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