Lawmakers spar over Biden defense budget proposal

The U.S. Capitol is seen from the Supreme Court on Tuesday, March 8, 2022.
Greg Nash

Lawmakers on Capitol Hill are sparring over the merits of President Biden’s $813.3 billion defense budget, one of the largest investments in the Pentagon and security ever proposed.

Republicans are largely united in their calls to invest even more in defense as the threat from China grows, the U.S. works to back Ukraine and other allies against Russia and inflation climbs.

Democrats, on the other hand, are split. Liberals are decrying a Democratic president seeking to pump more money into the Pentagon, which has already seen its budget swell over the years. But centrist Democrats, eyeing a difficult midterm election when their party is on its back foot, want to be seen as backing U.S. defense, leading experts to predict Biden’s proposal is merely a floor for what the Pentagon could get.

“I think it is a sound step, toward a very necessary investment in our national security,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee who is running for reelection this year.

“After the assistance that we provide to Ukraine and our NATO allies, we need to replenish our own stocks and supplies of NATO partners who have provided aid and we need to recognize the world as it is increasingly dangerous and risk-filled,” he continued.

Biden’s proposal for $813.3 billion in defense spending represents a 4 percent increase above the $782 billion in defense spending that was enacted fiscal 2022.

One issue that quickly emerged is how inflation will impact the increases Biden is proposing, particularly the Department of Defense budget, which makes up most of the overall national defense budget.

The president is proposing $773 billion for the Pentagon, 4.1 percent more than the $742.3 billion that was enacted for the agency in fiscal 2022. The rest of the funding would go to defense-adjacent programs in other areas of the federal government like the National Nuclear Security Administration in the Department of Energy.

Pentagon Comptroller Michael McCord told reporters on Monday that when accounting for inflation, the request represents 1.5 percent of real growth over what was enacted.

“It’s ignorant to believe these historically high inflation rates aren’t hurting our service members just like they are every other American family,” Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) and Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Ala.), the top Armed Services Republicans in Congress, said in a statement.

“Beyond that, inflation is also driving up key military needs like fuel, as well as the cost of labor and supplies — but this budget doesn’t appear to address that reality,” they continued.

Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.), chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, said in a statement that the proposal does take into account “the real cost of inflation for our military” by adding additional funding to support the agency’s purchasing power.

“Inflationary pressures affect different industries and goods in different ways, and the unique needs of the Department and U.S. military reflect that reality,” Smith said.

Congress will ultimately determine how much money to appropriate, and the expectation is that number will be higher than what the president is asking for.

That was the case in fiscal 2022, when Biden initially asked for $752.9 billion for national defense, of which $715 billion would have been for the Pentagon, and Congress ultimately appropriated $782 billion for national defense, of which the Pentagon walked away with $742.3 billion. Those numbers even surpassed the top-lines authorized in the fiscal 2022 National Defense Authorization Act.

The most pressing challenges on lawmakers’ minds are investing in nuclear modernization, addressing the threat from China and, especially, addressing Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

“With the world focused on what’s going on in Ukraine and Russian aggression, I think it’s been a wake-up call for Western Europe and probably for us, too, that national security is important. Defense is doubly important,” said Sen. Richard Shelby (Ala.), the top Republican on the Senate Appropriations Committee who is retiring in January.

“And we’re going to address that. We’re going to have to do it, and it’s going to take a lot of money.” 

Sen. Deb Fischer (R-Neb.), a member of the Senate Armed Services committee, similarly said Biden’s proposal was “aspirational.”

“I think that the administration has to look at the realities of the world we’re in, and I don’t think this top-line does that,” she said.

Some Democrats argue it’s as important to watch how the U.S. is spending its money on national defense as how much it spends overall. 

Rep. Betty McCollum (D-Minn.), chair of the  House Appropriations subcommittee on defense, committed to “dig into this defense budget to cut waste and programs that do not enhance our national security.”

Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.), a member of the House Armed Services Committee, said it’s important to invest in sending more weapons to Ukraine, cybersecurity, artificial intelligence and hypersonic weapons. 

“It’s an increasingly dangerous world. But it’s not about how much we spend. It’s about how we spend it,” he said. “So, the Democrats need to put out a 21st century vision of national security.”

Tags Adam Smith Biden Deb Fischer defense budget Joe Biden military budget pentagon Richard Blumenthal
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