House consideration of the annual defense authorization bills has been a debacle in recent years and this year is no exception.
Republican hardliners control the House Armed Services Committee and the House floor; a terrible bill voted out of the Armed Services Committee became even worse.
As in the past, a more reasonable outcome for a bill that will be sent to the President will depend on moderates in the Senate who may temper the worst House instincts in an eventual House-Senate conference to resolve differences between the House and Senate bills.
The House-passed bill totals $696.5 billion, including $631.5 billion for base requirements and $65 billion for the Overseas Contingency Operations account. The Trump Administration budget request sent to Congress earlier this year was already $54 billion above the defense spending caps in budget law and the House bill is about $28 billion above the President’s request.
The President and House Republicans propose to pay for these massive increases by slashing spending for non-defense programs. However, a closely-divided Senate is not going to want to approve funding levels that cut domestic programs dramatically to pay for defense.
The catch-all justification for all this spending is that the world is a more dangerous place with North Korea testing missiles and nuclear weapons, Russia threatening U.S. interests in Europe, the Chinese acting more aggressively in the Asia Pacific region and the Islamic State advancing. However, there is little explanation of how more over-budget F-35 aircraft, a new destroyer, or advanced intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) will cope with these challenges.
Another less advertised reason is that the increases of new aircraft, ships and other weapons provide jobs in House Members’ districts.
Moreover, the Pentagon does not have any real idea how it is spending its money because it is the only federal agency to have never passed an audit.
The House proved its acute interest in protecting jobs when majorities of both parties voted 175-248 to defeat an amendment offered by Tom McClintock (R-CA) to permit the Pentagon to close unnecessary bases for huge potential savings.
The Armed Services Committee had previously adopted a number of hardline positions, including limiting funds to extend the New START nuclear reductions treaty, restricting nuclear weapons dismantlement, establishing a Space Corps to fight and win wars in space and requiring the development of a ground-launched cruise missile system that, if tested, would violate the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty.
That was only the beginning. A Don Young (R-AK) amendment on the House floor to authorize 28 new ground-based mid-course interceptors, and to suggest building up to 100 interceptors, systems still have not been proved to be reliable, was adopted by voice vote.
A Doug Lamborn (R-CO) amendment to require an Initial Operational Capability of a boost phase ballistic missile defense by Dec. 31, 2020, a system rejected as not feasible or cost effective by former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, was also adopted by voice vote.
An amendment offered by Rep. Joe Wilson (R-SC) to restrict funding for the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty Organization that undermines U.S. obligations was approved by voice vote.
Efforts to limit the damage failed. An amendment offered by Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) to delay spending for a new ground-launched intermediate range missile failed 173-249. Blumenauer also lost by a vote of 169-254 on an provision to slow development of a new nuclear-tipped cruise missile.
Even amendments to get an official estimate of the 30-year cost of the “all of the above” nuclear weapons refurbishment program — reportedly estimated by the Congressional Budget Office to be $1.2 trillion — were turned away by majorities in the House.
In the end, it will be up to the Senate, which has thus far produced a less extreme bill, to sand the rough edges off the House bill. The final result will not be known for months.