Rep. Ro Khanna Says No to Pentagon Budget

July 3rd, 2023 - by William Hartung / Forbes

Rep. Ro Khanna Says No to Pentagon Budget:
Authorization Bill Deserves to Be Defeated
William Hartung / Forbes

(June 29, 2023) — Late on the night of June 21st, the House Armed Services Committee passed its version of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) by a vote of 58 to 1. The sole opponent of the bill as written was Rep. Ro Khanna (D-CA).

Khanna’s reasons for voting against the bill were persuasive:

“I voted against the NDAA because it puts Pentagon spending on track to a trillion dollar defense budget. Too much of that money is going to defense contractors, who are ripping off American taxpayers at every turn by raising prices to unprecedented levels. . . . While we should invest in defense technologies of the future, we must focus on investing in the health of our people, in the education of our people, in the industries of the future as we compete with China, and mitigating the climate crisis, which is our greatest national security threat.”

Khanna suggests that the failure of other members of his committee to vote against the bill is attributable in part to “groupthink in the Beltway” and a fear of seeming weak on national security. But members of Congress need to go deeper, and not merely support a high-top-line figure for the Pentagon and assume that their responsibility for supporting an effective defense has thereby been discharged.

The challenge is not how much to spend on the Pentagon, but whether the funds are being invested in capabilities that provide for a modern defense capability in service of a viable strategy.

As Khanna also notes, there is a divide between the routine support for soaring Pentagon budgets in Congress and the views outside of Washington. He asserts that “the public wants our focus to be on building our communities at home, not building bases overseas.” And he suggests that there is a political opportunity to “go after the profiteering of defense contractors at the expense of our troops and communities.”

Part of that job will require widespread public education, because, for example, very few Americans know that the Pentagon already devours more than half of our federal discretionary spending, leaving other urgently needed programs to fight over the remainder.

When it comes to reducing total Pentagon spending, the ultimate challenge will be to implement a more restrained strategy that emphasizes diplomacy over war and preparations for war. A version of this approach is outlined in a recent report I wrote for my institution, the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. The report maintains that absent a change of approach, more spending may actually bring less security.

Khanna’s vote came in the wake of a CBS 60 Minutes investigation that revealed outrageous price gouging on the part of weapons contractors. To cite just one example, former Pentagon procurement official Shay Assad revealed that the Pentagon paid $10,000 for a component comparable to one that was purchased by NASA for just $328. And Assad noted that the overcharging went far beyond individual parts to include missiles, missile defense systems, ships, aircraft — virtually everything the Pentagon buys.

Without strong measures to prevent rampant price gouging, throwing more money at the Pentagon is likely to produce more waste, not greater defense capabilities. This is particularly the case given that major contractors like Lockheed Martin have spent tens of billions of dollars in recent years buying back their own stock to boost its value and enrich shareholders rather than investing in developing more effective, affordable defense equipment, as noted by Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA).

The enormous price tag of the new bill — hundreds of billions of dollars more for the Pentagon and related military programs than at the height of the Korean or Vietnam wars or the peak of the Cold War, adjusted for inflation — is just one of its many flaws.

Amendments to prevent the department from retiring outmoded ships and aircraft could impose billions in unnecessary costs in the years to come.

An amendment to study how to implement a naval blockade on fuel supplies to China would exacerbate existing tensions with Beijing and increase the chances of a conflict down the road.

Funding for the unnecessary and dangerous nuclear-armed sea-launched cruise missile, a Trump-era system that was not in the Pentagon’s budget request, sets the stage for the eventual deployment of a destabilizing weapon that increases nuclear risks at a time when the focus should be on rescuing the endangered global nuclear arms control regime.

A slew of amendments attacking efforts to promote diversity, combat racism and extremism, and respect the rights of LGBTQ individuals in the military are a disgrace, and voting for the bill without vigorously opposing these measures could be seen as a tacit endorsement of these extremist, inhumane provisions.

Last but not least, there is an amendment in the bill that would excuse weapons contractors from abiding by forthcoming regulations that would require them to report on the levels of greenhouse gasses their activities generate — a first step towards reducing their carbon footprint as part of the larger national effort to curb climate change.

For all of the above reasons, members of Congress should consider voting against the current version of the National Defense Authorization Act when it comes to the floor of the House, probably in mid-July. And they should work hard to strip out amendments that enshrine bigotry, impose unnecessary costs on the Pentagon, and endorse aggressive policies that could spark future conflicts.

There’s too much at stake to simply rubber stamp this deeply flawed piece of legislation. Rep. Khanna was right to oppose the bill in committee, and hopefully a large contingent of members will oppose it when it is considered by the full House of Representatives.

William Hartung is a defense analyst who covers the economics of Pentagon spending.

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