Vote Notes: H.R. 695, Department of Defense Appropriations Act
It’s interesting that I spoke yesterday of straws breaking the camel’s back...because the same analogy holds true when I think about this week’s vote on defense appropriations.
To state the obvious, mustering the needs for a common defense is a core responsibility of the federal government. It also happens to be very important to people in the First District, given their sons and daughters in harm’s way, the number of retirees who reside along the coast of South Carolina, and the many active duty and reserve personnel working at installations in the district. In addition to these components, there are a host of military suppliers who are affected by defense appropriations.
But once again, the House is attempting to circumvent the budget caps without yet voting to do so. The caps and sequester have been the most imperfect of budget tools and have done disproportionate harm to the military...but the caps have been the only piece of meaningful financial restraint in Washington. And I believe we need to have a very straightforward debate on lifting them before we open Pandora’s box to new spending. This is particularly the case in light of the tax bill wherein as Republicans we made it a point to limit the revenue stream to the federal government. This made sense to me. What makes no sense to me is to simply increase spending in the wake of doing so without a very thoughtful debate on how we pay for that spending going forward.
It needs to be remembered how we got to budget caps. They were instituted as a consequence of a breakdown in negotiations to address the long-term drivers of our unsustainable spending trajectory. That trajectory, which had people so worried as to institute the caps, has only worsened. This makes it more than a little ironic that now, at the time when our spending problem is worse, we’re thinking about ending them.
So in many ways, my vote has nothing to do with defense appropriations and everything to do with the larger question of what comes next in spending. The premise behind the budget caps was that some would affect Republican priorities, like defense, while others affected Democrats priorities, like the rest of domestic discretionary spending. So whatever we do next on the defense cap will impact what comes next on the rest of domestic discretionary spending. In short, we cannot isolate this bill to all the good that’s in it...we have to look at the larger consequence of what will come with an end to budget caps in Washington.
So let me cut to the chase, the defense appropriations bill, which brings about the destruction of these budget caps, isn’t something that makes sense, until we find some way of addressing what Admiral Mike Mullen called the greatest threat to the American civilization...our growing debt and deficits.
Let me give you a few specific reasons beyond the budget cap issue as to why I think this vote makes sense.
One, it spends even beyond what President Trump had asked. This is relevant because in his role as commander-in-chief, he is to assess the military needs of our nation. This does not make his view perfect, but it’s a relevant point when one looks at the way that the Pentagon and the Congress have used the Overseas Contingency Fund to circumvent the budget caps in the past and to include at times their own priorities versus those of the Pentagon.
Two, it mandates we spend another $50 billion in Afghanistan. In my view, this is a big deal because we are now in our 17th year of operations there without an Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF). If we’re going to decide to spend billions...or cumulatively over a trillion in another part of the world, shouldn’t we at least take a vote on doing so? I’ve consistently pushed for a vote on the authorization of force, and to date we’ve not been able to get one. From my perspective, this is a constitutional issue as the Constitution is quite clear that only Congress can declare war. Yet modern history is replete with examples of the executive branch taking us into operations that morph into long-term commitments without the congressional debate on our financial and human commitment to doing so.
Think about this for a minute. $50 billion is more than the entire defense budget for Great Britain or Germany. Wouldn’t a commitment of this size be worthy of a real debate? $50 billion would buy seven or eight Nimitz-class aircraft carriers. Would we be stronger as a nation with eight aircraft carriers or another year of operations in Afghanistan? Or think about it this way. We spend about $40 billion a year on the Highway Trust Fund. That’s for the whole country! I tried to get out of Charleston last Friday, and it took me about an hour because of a crash on I-26 and Highway 17. Would we be stronger as a nation if we had better infrastructure as a consequence of spending that $50 billion on our own roads and bridges as opposed to operations in Afghanistan? Or how about one more bite at the apple? Given next year will be our 18th year of operations in Afghanistan, there will be young men who will serve there who weren’t yet born when the conflict first started. We’ve never done that before, and shouldn’t we have a debate about operations of that duration without a formal vote on the Authorization of the Use of Military Force?
My only point in these different examples is that we shouldn’t ever be in the business of rubber stamping defense spending just because it’s defense spending. In fact, this bill is a $1.2 billion increase in Afghanistan operations from the same defense bill that we just voted on in late fall. Things like this point to the need for a much more robust conversation about our operations in the Middle East. It was candidate-Trump who said he was going to get us out of these operations, but this bill signals that our commitment is growing rather than shrinking.
So the bottom line is the bill obviously has a lot of good that I applaud. But this bill represents my last chance to say that I think it’s a bad idea to break the budget caps in Washington and open up the spending spigot in this town. No amount of good in this bill can undo the harm to our national security that will come with increased financial dependence. While China buys our bonds today, I don’t think that we ever want to put ourselves in a position wherein we depend on them continuing to do so to sustain our economy. Yet that’s exactly where we’re headed. We borrow approximately 40 cents of every dollar that’s spent, and unsustainable spending has in fact been the death knell to many civilizations that have preceded us. So, in assessing the fundamentals of national defense and national strength, I think we always have to look at how finances play a part of this. In this vein, I would recommend Paul Kennedy’s book “The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers.” In it, he chronicles the way in which economic supremacy has always been the precursor to military supremacy...and the ways in which no civilization in the history of mankind has been able to sustain one without the other. It’s with this thinking that I reluctantly cast my “no” vote on Tuesday.