Eyeing defense spending cuts, House GOP targets military ‘wokeness’

Top House Republicans say the Pentagon’s budget will be on the table as Republicans seek to negotiate spending cuts in exchange for raising the federal debt ceiling — and have placed a bullseye on “wokeness” in the military.

Exactly what that means remains somewhat unclear, but House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) and others in his caucus have pointed to programs including efforts to diversify the military, identify alternative fuels and other environmental initiatives. 

“We’re going to cut money that’s being spent on wokeism, we’re going to cut legacy programs, we’re going to cut a lot of waste,” Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Ala.), the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, told The Hill on Wednesday. 

When asked specifically what programs they will push to cut, Rogers said to stay tuned to subcommittee hearings.

In his bid to become Speaker, McCarthy agreed with conservative lawmakers to cap all new discretionary spending at fiscal 2022 levels, which would amount to a $75 billion cut in the defense budget from the $857 billion passed in the last National Defense Authorization Act.

While eliminating “woke” programs appears to have broad support within the House GOP, there appears to be some opposition to topline cuts to defense spending. 

Rep. Jim Banks (R-Ind.), a member of the Armed Services Committee, said in a statement he supported defunding programs like diversity and inclusion training but wanted to increase spending for the Navy.

“I won’t vote for a bill that cuts defense spending, and I think most of the conference agrees with me,” Banks said.

McCarthy argued earlier this month that freezing spending at ‘22 levels wasn’t technically a “cut,” but still pointed to areas that could be eliminated. 

“Does defense getting more than $800 billion, are there areas that I think they could be more efficient in? Yeah,” he said told Maria Bartiromo on Fox News’s “Sunday Morning Futures.”

“Eliminate all the money spent on ‘wokeism.’ Eliminate all the money that they’re trying to find different fuels and they’re worried about the environment to go through.”

Members of the House Armed Services Committee have made similar calls, including Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.) in a Fox Business appearance on Monday, and Rep. Austin Scott (R-Ga.).

Scott told The Hill that if Congress needs to make cuts in the defense budget, “let’s start with the woke ideology and finish with the bureaucracy.”

“The recruiting and retention in the military is at an all-time low, and the DoD needs to quit focusing on the woke ideology and focus on the mission of supporting our warfighters,” Scott said in a statement.

The Defense Department has an office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion that could be a target along with its programs and long-term strategies. 

In 2011, the Pentagon released a five-year diversity and inclusion strategy that included formally lifting a combat exclusion for women, making diversity expansion an institutional priority and creating a chief diversity officer position. It still has several more goals to meet on the diversity front, according to an inspector general report released last year.

Republicans have previously sought to defund those practices. A bill introduced last year by Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.), a senior member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, proposed cutting resources for diversity training

In a statement at the time, Wicker expressed concern that nearly six million hours have been spent on diversity training since President Biden took office.

On the energy front, the Defense Department has a goal to transition the Pentagon’s non-combat vehicle fleet to renewable energy sources by 2035 and to develop electric combat vehicles by 2050. The Biden administration has also been working to support more clean energy projects at military installations.

Justin Logan, the director of defense and foreign policy at the conservative Cato Institute, said much of the GOP’s talk around slashing “woke” programs is more about scoring political points than enacting real budget change.

“Republicans calling the defense budget woke may be effective politically, it may bring around Republicans who say, ‘I know I’m against wokeness and if the Pentagon is woke I’m against the Pentagon,’’’ Logan said. “But as an [actual] approach, you might imagine that leaves a lot to be desired.

“The fundamental program that the Pentagon faces,” Logan continued, “is they have extremely ambitious goals for the United States and pursuing those goals is extremely expensive.” 

The potential defense cuts are part of the broader Republican refusal to lift the federal government’s debt ceiling without a deal on spending cuts in the next fiscal year. The debt ceiling is at risk of defaulting in June, which could have huge ramifications for the economy.

McCarthy met with Biden for the first time on Wednesday, with the administration’s new budget proposal likely to be unveiled next month. Biden has called on McCarthy to release specifics regarding his demands for spending cuts. 

In an interview with CBS’s “Face the Nation” on Sunday, McCarthy said he was “hopeful” that talks with Biden could result in a compromise.

“I want to make sure we’re protected in our defense spending, but I want to make sure it’s effective and efficient,” he said. “I want to look at every single dollar we’re spending, no matter where it’s being spent. I want to eliminate waste wherever it is.”

Phyllis Bennis, the program director of the New Internationalism Project at the Institute for Policy Studies, said it would be easier for Republicans and Democrats to negotiate on topline spending cuts than to pick apart individual programs.

“Numbers are the easiest way to compromise,” Bennis said. “If you want 10 percent and I want zero, it’s easy to compromise at 5 percent. That’s not hard.”

But Democrats have said McCarthy’s push for a spending agreement while holding the debt ceiling over their heads is a non-starter.

“Deal with spending when you’re spending,” Rep. Bill Keating (D-Mass.), a member of the House Armed Services Committee, told The Hill.

“There is a place, obviously, to talk about making cuts in defense, but it’s not in the White House when you’re talking about the debt ceiling.”

Keating said cutting diversity programs would be “insignificant” in terms of reducing spending and also weaken the military’s forces.

“They did not come out of thin air,” the congressman said of the diversity programs. “They come from listening to our military.”

Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.), a longtime member of the Armed Services Committee, said he has long supported cutting the defense budget because the U.S. is “on track to spend a trillion dollars a year on defense.”

But, he added, not with the debt ceiling as the basis.

“The reputation of the United States is on the line here. Of course we should pay our debts. This is debt that has been accrued by Republicans too,” he said in a statement. “If Republicans want to then have a conversation about spending going forward, I am happy to engage.”

Tags Austin Scott Defense spending Jim Banks Jim Banks Joe Biden Kevin McCarthy Kevin McCarthy Mike Rogers Mike Rogers pentagon Ro Khanna spending cuts

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