By Mike DeBonis
Twenty-nine of the Houseâ€™s most liberal Democratic members called Tuesday for a cut in military spending in the yearly national defense authorization bill â€” a declaration, they said, that is meant to focus federal resources on the coronavirus pandemic.
The demand, however, stands to greatly complicate the Democratic-controlled Houseâ€™s ability to advance the National Defense Authorization Act, one of the most consequential must-pass measures that Congress assembles each year. It is likely to generate objections from Republicans and more moderate Democrats alike â€” and create headaches for Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and her leadership team.
The signers are almost all members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, including lead sponsors Barbara Lee (Calif.) and Mark Pocan (Wis.), who have long called for lower levels of Pentagon spending to free more resources for domestic spending. But the pandemic, they argue, presents a new imperative for defense cuts.
â€œRight now, the coronavirus is our greatest adversary,â€ said a draft of the letter circulated to House offices and obtained by The Washington Post. â€œWe must remain focused on combating the coronavirus and not on increasing military spending that already outpaces the next 10 closest nations combined. .â€‰.â€‰. At some point, spending more than every other nation on earth must be enough.â€
The letter is addressed to House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam Smith (D-Wash.) and Rep. Mac Thornberry (Tex.), the panelâ€™s ranking Republican, and it comes as the panel begins the annual process of writing the defense bill and forwarding it to the House floor.
A Democratic committee spokeswoman said Smith â€œis aware of the caucusâ€™s concerns regarding defense spending.â€
â€œWhen working on the annual defense bill, each year the committee fields requests and concerns from many members across the ideological spectrum, and this year is no different,â€ said the spokeswoman, Monica Matoush. â€œAll of these requests are taken seriously by the committee and will be addressed during the legislative process.â€AD
The liberal demands come less than six months after the last National Defense Authorization Act passed following an unusually partisan and contentious process in which several Democratic priorities championed by Congressional Progressive Caucus members were dropped from the final bill.
Pocan said in an interview that the left wing of the Democratic caucus is probably now less willing to tolerate a higher level of Pentagon spending in return for policy sweeteners, knowing they were likely to be bargained away in negotiations with Senate Republicans and the White House.
â€œNow weâ€™ve been through that. We know that probably a promise like that is not going to happen again,â€ he said, arguing that the pandemic makes the liberal argument against rising defense spending more salient than ever.
â€œItâ€™s the most valid contrast I think you could ever have to defend,â€ Pocan added. â€œWhat really defends our country right now is spending money with the [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention], with state and local governments, for providing the testing, the personal protection equipment, for all the things that people know really protect their family, and I think itâ€™s a good, sharp contrast to make.â€AD
With 29 signatures, the letter carries an implicit ultimatum: Should Democratic leaders move forward with an outsize defense bill, they will need to do so with Republican votes. The signers could together block the bill from passage if the GOP unites against Democrats, as it did last year.
Meanwhile, negotiating with Republican lawmakers â€” who have made increasing defense spending a top priority under President Trump â€” stands to alienate the mainstream members of the Democratic caucus, who are likely to insist on measures that restrict the Trump administration even if they are willing to stomach a higher spending level.
Among the signers are the four members of the Houseâ€™s hard-left â€œsquadâ€ â€” Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (N.Y.), Ilhan Omar (Minn.), Ayanna Pressley (Mass.) and Rashida Tlaib (Mich.). They also include senior House members such as Rules Committee Chairman Jim McGovern (Mass.), Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Peter A. DeFazio (Ore.), Small Business Committee Chairwoman Nydia M. VelÃ¡zquez (N.Y.) and Natural Resources Committee Chairman RaÃºl M. Grijalva (Ariz.). One, Rep. Ro Khanna (Calif.), is a member of the Armed Services Committee.AD
The letter comes at a time when there are eminent questions about how willing the hard left is to use its leverage in the House to force the broader Democratic caucus in its direction â€” much as the hard-right House Freedom Caucus used its sway when Republicans held the majority.
Just last week, liberals fumed as Pelosi kept favored Progressive Caucus priorities out of a $3 trillion coronavirus relief bill. But only one member on the caucusâ€™s left â€” CPC co-chair Pramila Jayapal (Wash.) â€” voted against it.
During the Trump administration, the military budget has risen about 20 percent as Democrats have traded Pentagon spending increases to secure matching hikes in domestic spending.
Last yearâ€™s House-passed bill garnered broad liberal support because of the inclusion of several policy provisions favored by the partyâ€™s left, such as ending U.S. military support for Saudi involvement in Yemen, requiring a congressional authorization for any military action targeting Iran, reversing Trumpâ€™s ban on transgender military members, and restricting the Trump administrationâ€™s ability to transfer money to border wall construction.AD
The final bill negotiated with the Senate dropped all those provisions, and although it ultimately included paid parental leave for all federal workers, it left many liberals fuming.
The measure ultimately authorized $738 billion in spending â€” less than the $750 billion the Trump administration wanted but much more than the $644 billion the Progressive Caucus had initially floated.
Smith said at the time that it remained the â€œmost progressive defense bill we have passed in decadesâ€ and touted wins elsewhere in the legislation, including measures dealing with military housing and restrictions on the use of certain toxic chemicals.
Now, the left sees a completely different political landscape. Lee said in a statement that the pandemic â€œhas laid bare how America has failed to make its budgets reflect the real needs of our everyday families.â€AD
â€œItâ€™s long past time that we address our bloated military budget and retarget resources toward policies and programs that matter the most for keeping us safe, healthy and secure,â€ she said.
Pocan said Progressive Caucus members know that cutting defense spending, which flows into virtually every House district, will be an uphill battle. But he argued that the present circumstances should make the public more receptive to the argument for a lower Pentagon budget.
â€œRight now, people really desperately need money in their district, and we donâ€™t get calls asking us to build more F-35s,â€ he said. â€œWeâ€™re getting calls to make sure that weâ€™ve got more masks and gowns and personal protection equipment for people who are in hospitals, and police and fire and other front-line personnel. So I do think this is a unique moment to really show that contrast.â€AD
Mike DeBonis covers Congress, with a focus on the House, for The Washington Post. He previously covered D.C. politics and government from 2007 to 2015.
This article was published on May 19 in the Washington Post.