Now that the House of Representatives has approved President Joe Biden’s social spending and climate plan, the legislation’s fate depends on the Senate ― where Republicans and key Democrats say the plan costs too much. But as senators debate the $1.7 trillion package, they will also advance a far more expensive bill with far less scrutiny: the annual Pentagon budget, which approves more than four times as much spending as Biden’s Build Back Better Act.
Lawmakers have this year crafted one of the largest military spending bills in American history. The National Defense Authorization Act would approve $778 billion in spending in 2022, compared to the approximately $170 billion in spending that Biden’s social policy would entail next year. Senate leaders hope to pass the defense legislation before Thanksgiving and Build Back Better in December.
Hawkish Democrats worked with Republicans to ensure that the defense bill would be $25 billion greater than Biden’s proposal for the military budget, and to quash progressive efforts to trim costs.
“There’s a fear of being seen as weak on national security by some Democrats but we need to reframe the debate ― a lot of the money is going to defense contractors,” said Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.), a member of the House Armed Services Committee. “We should say we’re for military families and job creation, not CEO salaries of $5 million.”
“And we shouldn’t be memorializing [former President Donald] Trump’s massive increases,” he added, referring to the huge uptick in defense budgets under the last Republican administration.
By putting Biden’s domestic spending plan in the context of huge and rarely questioned defense spending, Congress could have a realistic conversation about how Washington uses taxpayer dollars.
“We need to talk in a way that compares apples to apples and oranges to oranges ... you can’t use a 10-year number only for the human investment. How is that fair?” Khanna said.
Instead, Biden’s opponents have consistently used two different standards in talking about the two bills and linked the spending plans only in attacks.
Capitol Hill has been slow to greenlight the defense bill because Democrats “have been so preoccupied with passing their reckless tax-and-spending spree that they have overlooked and ignored some of the basic responsibilities of governing,” Sen. John Thune (R-N.D.) told reporters earlier this month.
Sen. Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.) told HuffPost that Biden’s social policy bill ― which invests in renewable energy and universal pre-kindergarten while cutting costs for child care and health care ― is less important than military funding.
“National defense is the first, the highest priority of the federal government. It’s the most legit thing the federal government does. So whatever is required to defend the U.S. is the first use of our revenue,” Cramer said.
The defense bill authorizes significant spending beyond the day-to-day cost of defending the U.S., however. Close to half of the funding goes to new weapons systems and other military investments for the future, a congressional aide involved in crafting the legislation told HuffPost ― just as the smaller Biden social spending package funds long-term investments in America’s social safety net.
Critics of Build Back Better seem unconcerned with those details.
Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), the top Republican in the House, has claimed Biden’s spending plan would cost Democrats votes. In an eight-hour speech trying to block it, McCarthy called the legislation “the single most reckless and irresponsible spending bill in our nation’s history,” without referencing defense spending or the cost of the GOP’s huge tax cuts in 2017.
And there’s silence on the comparison from Democrats who have been bashing Biden’s spending proposal by saying it’s too costly to fund policies like paid family leave.
Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) praised the staggering defense bill. A spokesperson for Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.), who has sought to reduce Build Back Better spending, did not immediately respond to a HuffPost request for comment on her views.
For the military-industrial establishment, it’s an ideal state of affairs. Defense industry executive Wesley Hallman cheered lawmakers for having “defied the White House” and “easily overcoming an amendment seeking a 10 percent spending cut” in an op-ed earlier this month.
But the contrast makes it harder to hold the Pentagon accountable and highlights how Biden’s political strategy is undercutting his stated agenda.
Supporters of the defense bill have yet to explain why Biden’s withdrawal of the American military presence in Afghanistan did not save money, for instance. The congressional aide working on the legislation told HuffPost that funding earmarked for the Afghan mission was likely redirected to pay for other military projects and “balance” the tables in the bill rather than to reduce the overall cost.
The Pentagon has never passed an independent audit of its spending, noted Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), who opposes the military funding.
Opponents of the military price tag should be clear about their strategic priorities and the risks they are willing to incur, the aide argued. “I cringe a little when I see stuff that’s like, 700 billion is a lot. It’s a lot if your only goal is to defend the East Coast ― it might not be enough if your job is to stop China from invading Taiwan,” they said.
But Washington has decided to once again avoid a tough conversation about foreign policy.
That’s a choice driven by the White House: A lawmaker familiar with Biden’s thinking told HuffPost his team is “petrified of being seen as soft on China” and therefore uninterested in pushing hard to slim down the military budget. The result: a misconception of government spending that’s forced Biden to torpedo many of his own priorities in Build Back Better.
The irony will become especially clear in the coming weeks, when senators vote on both the defense bill and Biden’s plan, likely passing the bigger expense with a clear majority while only squeaking through the far cheaper domestic investment. Both policies will add to the national debt, which Biden’s critics say he would dangerously inflate.
“All of the deficit hawks, I would assume that they’re going to be voting against the [defense bill]. Of course they will not,” Sanders said.
Igor Bobic and Tara Golshan contributed reporting.