Vote Notes: H.R. 6157, Department of Defense Appropriations Act of 2019
The Founding Fathers laid out very few enumerated requirements for our federal government, and our national defense was one of them.
This made my decision yesterday on the Department of Defense appropriations bill difficult because, on the one hand, I saw it as a core function of government, while on the other hand, I recognized that one of the most important building blocks to our nation’s defense rests in sustainable spending. We are not on such a course. All areas of spending at the federal level will need trimming, and this includes defense.
Yet, once again, and indeed on the other hand, you don’t want to penalize defense efforts for what they’ve been mandated to do by political and civilian leadership. We require our armed services to forward deploy in a host of different hotspots around the world. It’s not their call, but it becomes their duty.
And if we are serious about this spending problem that we have, we need to boil down, prioritize, and limit a number of these commitments. Paul Kennedy, in his book The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, talks about how oversized military spending commitments have historically proven disastrous for the civilizations that allowed them.
So went the ping-pong ball on the Defense appropriations bill this year, with friends like Mac Thornberry, who is the Chairman of the Armed Services Committee, telling me firsthand of different accidents and events that had occured over the year as a consequence of inadequate funding...while, at the same time, I know the math of where our country is headed in the next ten years.
I ultimately decided to support this measure, and it passed 359 to 49.
It funds the Department of Defense at $606 billion for what is called base funding. Base funding is not a reference to military bases but rather the foundational defense budget that includes everything from payroll to equipment purchases. In addition, there was another $68 billion for the Overseas Contingency Operations account (OCO). This is also considered the war fighting account, and it is not subject to budget caps the way that the base funding is. Historically, this account has been used to get around caps on the base funding portion of the bill, and things that were not emergency or war fighting related got tossed into this account. Finally, in addition to these two defense numbers, this year there was a so-called minibus that contained another $32.6 billion and another $9 billion that came through the appropriations process that will go to defense-related activities.
I’ve taken several votes to limit military spending to that base amount, but my viewpoint did not prevail. I believe that the sequester, as rough a tool as it was, represented the only piece of financial restraint in Washington...and, accordingly, was needed.
But that’s not the vote we got to take on the DoD bill, given the spending level was at the new cap number. What this means is that the old defense cap number would have been $562 billion, and this has now been raised $85 billion to $647 billion.
Maybe the easiest way to look at these numbers is to look at them in relative terms. It was these relative numbers that ultimately pushed me over the top in supporting this bill. Last year, we spent 3.3% of our GDP on defense. Many people like to use the 50-year average on what we spent on defense, which is 4.59%...but I think that this number skews high because it begins in 1969 and includes the ramp up in spending that we saw in Vietnam. The numbers go even higher when you go back to include World War II, wherein we spent a high of 37% of our GDP on defense. What’s even more amazing is that we did that for three years in a row...and had two outlying years wherein we spent about 18% of our economy. It really does make one appreciate the notion of war bonds and the national effort that went into saving our country at that time.
But in any case, the most realistic numbers are the 30, 20, and 10-year averages on military spending. They put us at 3.8%, 3.66%, and 3.82%, respectively, as a percentage of our economy. This says that we are a shade on the low side, given the relatively peaceful time period that this encapsulates notwithstanding the ramp up of China as a competitor and operations in the Middle East. This bill moves it up to 3.56%.
These numbers also underscore the fact that many of our allies are indeed being subsidized by every one of us as American taxpayers. The president has been right to call for greater participation by our allies in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). A requirement of NATO membership is spending at least 2% of annual gross domestic product (GDP) on defense. Again, we’re spending almost double this. As of 2017, only 6 of the 29 member nations have even met the 2% spending requirement.
As to what the bill did, troop levels are increased by 16,400. Equipment procurement includes the addition of 12 Navy ships...which will take us up from the 94 currently deployed around the world. It also adds 2 Virginia class submarines to the 15 currently operating. There were a host of other upgrades that included research and development, space security, nuclear force modernization, next generation radar, and missile defense.
To be clear, I continue to be concerned about the Authorization of the Use of Military Force (AUMF) issue. I believe that only Congress should authorize war, and the war fighting that takes place in the Middle East continues to operate without a new AUMF from the U.S. Congress. I have spoken repeatedly on this front and would have supported Representative Barbara Lee’s amendment to have changed this, but it was not included by the committee in the final bill.
Also included in the bill is a money-wasting requirement that 30 US Navy ships not receive maintenance services at non-US ports. Rather than be maintained at a US military base in a foreign country, the ships must traverse the world and return to US waters for maintenance, which will cost an additional $40 million per year.
Finally, there were seven amendments to the bill that required a recorded vote. Allow me to outline three of them….
An amendment offered by Rep. Jim Langevin (D-RI) would have moved $40 million in funding for general defense operations and maintenance and used it to accelerate development on an electromagnetic railgun. The railgun is a next generation cannon that can shoot a 7-pound bullet at 4,500 miles per hour and penetrate concrete 100 miles away. US adversaries like China are investing in this technology, and for me, it made sense to complete development of this capability so it can protect our troops. I voted for the amendment, but it was rejected 188 to 228.
Rep. Ted Poe (R-TX) offered an amendment which would have reduced security assistance funds available for Pakistan by $200 million. The funds would have been sent to a spending reduction account. Since 1950, Pakistan has received a total of $30 billion from the US. In the past, on an annual basis, Pakistan has been eligible for up to $900 million in reimbursement costs, specifically related to US counter terrorism goals. However, the Pakistani government’s continued permissive stance toward terrorist groups operating in the country shows that this program is not having the intended effect. I believe sending at least $200 million to spending reductions and making a statement to the Pakistani government was worthwhile. I voted yes, but the amendment failed by a vote of 175 to 241.
Rep. Joe Courtney (D-CT) and Rep. Rob Wittman (R-VA) offered an amendment that would have moved funding from general weapons procurement to specifically purchase two new Virginia class submarines. I voted for it. The Virginia class submarine is the most sophisticated and effective tool available to our Navy. There are 15 currently in use. Planning for the new construction of one requires years of advance notice, and I believe our Navy needs more of them, given what the Chinese are doing in adding as aggressively as they are to their submarine fleet. The Department of Defense believes that China will have at least 70 submarines by 2020, which will match the total size of the US submarine fleet. For this reason, I felt like we needed to accelerate production of this capability, and I voted yes. The amendment failed by a count of 144 to 267.