It’s fairly well accepted that Congress is immobile, gripped by unprecedented partisanship — and who’s to blame for believing that portrayal? Indeed, there is a fair amount of truth to it. But like so much “truth,” there is an untold story.
The untold story (until now, that is) is that a reasonable measure of bipartisanship is quietly in operation within the confines of the defense budget process and its kissin’ cousin, the budget process of the Department of Veterans Affairs.
To the basics — and the basics always matter: Despite the tumultuous start of the 117th Congress, behind the scenes the right things occurred: committee members were assigned, legislative priorities were established, bills were introduced and reintroduced, and the framework for the budget was put together.
As ROA’s director of legislative and military affairs put it, “I never thought I would be looking over both shoulders when I told ROA members, as if it were a dirty secret, ‘Psssst, Congress is working in a bipartisan manner even if you don’t see it on the news.’”
A perfect example is the Reserve Employers Comprehensive Relief and Uniform Incentives on Taxes (RECRUIT) Act of 2021, H.R. 1854. This bill is bipartisan, and all-too-unusual on the Hill, includes a “companion” Senate bill, S. 1178, also bipartisan, improving the legislation’s prospects for reaching the president’s signing hand.
While these two bills are just getting started on their journey — an auspicious start as bipartisan writ with co-sponsor support — H.R. 1695, a bill to improve military health care for members of the Reserve and Guard (“TRICARE Reserve Select”), already has 94 co-sponsors, from both sides of the aisle.
Yes, between parties, there are some differences. There always have been; in years past many were worked out through compromises: both national security and the safety net for those injured, sickened or disabled by military service got funded. We have seen funding increases that, especially in the case of VA, will only increase. (When I came to Washington in 2001 as a Bush appointee in the VA, the agency’s budget was about $46 billion; the president’s request for fiscal year 2021 is $240.3 billion, a 10 percent increase over last year — and the number of living veterans has gone down.)
And yes, you will see fights over how the defense pie is sliced, but I don’t think that’s partisan. I think it reflects differing ways of looking at potential enemies, potential war and potential ways to improve readiness and deter war. With many regarding China as our next big threat and the Pacific Ocean the arena, what matters more, robust sea power or robust land power? What influence does resurgent Russian militarism have on the question of funding for our Army? These questions are, at this moment, the subject of sincere, informed, rigorous and bipartisan discussions in the administration and in Congress; we know that from some who are in those discussions.
Alas, unless we start printing money, hiking taxes, or cutting domestic spending (such as Social Security benefits), significantly growing the active duty military is unrealistically expensive. That is a primary reason our Reserve and National Guard will only get busier.
Wrangling over those sorts of spending decisions is not terribly partisan. It’s pretty normal and pretty healthy.
Remember, bad news and sensational headlines “sell papers.” Reader beware: They give you a fraction of the story, and you won’t know if it’s the accurate fraction. If we focus only on the bad news, we’ll miss what is working in the administration and in Congress.
ROA is reassured that what is working includes across-the-aisle compromise and dedication to those who serve us — or served us — in uniform. For those who think “compromise” is a dirty word, it works. In fact, in the governance of a republic founded on representative democracy, in the long run, it’s all that really does work.
Jeffrey Phillips is executive director of ROA, dba Reserve Organization of America, open to all ranks and promoting a strong, ready reserve force. A retired U.S. Army Reserve major general, he served in the Regular Army for nearly 14 years.