The House voted 377-48 to advance a $738 billion military spending authorization package on Wednesday despite a rebellion among progressive Democrats angered by the loss of provisions that would have curtailed endless wars and put President Trump’s most violent foreign policy ambitions in check.
The National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) is often described by the dominant media as a “must-pass” piece of legislation glowing with bipartisanship, but this year negotiations were different. Democrats clashed with Republicans over runaway Pentagon spending and provisions meant to prevent President Trump from leading the country into war, raising concerns that the legislation would not pass for the first time in nearly 60 years.
“Given the waste fraud and abuse of the Pentagon, the failure of the Pentagon to pass even a basic audit, and the unnecessary spending, I simply cannot support this bill,” said Rep. Barbara Lee, a California Democrat, on the House floor Wednesday.
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Lee and 40 other Democrats broke rank and voted against the package, including leading progressives, such as Representatives Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Pramila Jayapal, Ilhan Omar, Mark Pocan and Ro Khanna. The 2020 NDAA is larger than the authorization approved by Congress last year, boosting Pentagon spending by an additional $22 billion.
A number of Democrats and advocacy groups are furious over what’s not included in this year’s NDAA. Provisions to prevent Pentagon money from funding President Trump’s border wall, ending U.S. support for Saudi Arabia’s bloody campaign in Yemen, and requiring Trump to seek congressional permission before attacking Iran were dropped, along with a longstanding effort to rein in endless wars by repealing a 2002 authorization that greenlighted the war in Iraq. Democrats pledged to reintroduce these measures in separate legislation next year.
While the package funds environmental research and restricts the military’s use of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), a class of cancer-causing chemicals that has contaminated military bases and water supplies across the country, strong provisions requiring cleanup and efforts to keep the dangerous chemicals out of drinking water were also left out.
Some Democrats were also enraged about what’s in the authorization package. On Tuesday, as Democratic leadership moved toward a vote, two of the party’s presidential front-runners came out against the 2020 NDAA. Sen. Bernie Sanders, a longtime critic of foreign wars and heavy military spending, has voted against the NDAA in the past and came out against the latest package. Sen. Elizabeth Warren joined Sanders on Tuesday via tweet, calling the bill “a Christmas present to giant defense contractors” that “undermines our values and security.”
“In 2018, a groundswell of Americans came out to the ballot box to elect a Congress that would stand up to the brutal agenda of President Trump and the Republicans,” Sanders and Rep. Khanna said in a joint statement Tuesday. “The American people could not have imagined that this Congress would go on to craft legislation that adds tens of billions in new Pentagon spending — more than enough to fund tuition-free public college across America — while placing hardly any limits on this lawless administration.”
While vocally critical of military overspending, Warren, who sits on the committee that crafts the package, voted for the NDAA in past years and has used the legislation to direct funding toward military bases in her home state of Massachusetts. This year, Warren is running for president and was under pressure from journalists to take a stand on the NDAA. She slipped 10 points behind Sanders in a major Iowa poll released on Tuesday and is likely eager to peel antiwar voters away from her major opponent on the left.
Meanwhile, President Trump reveled in concessions won from Democrats in the package, including funding for the so-called Space Force, the president’s push to expand the Air Force into outer space. The Trump administration is pushing more than 700,000 low-income people off food stamps, but a bipartisan provision that would have increased support for low-income military families that regularly depend on food stamps and food pantries never materialized in the final legislation.
Antiwar critics said Democrats got “completely rolled” in negotiations with Republicans after the Senate stripped the legislation of its progressive measures with the exception of a provision providing parental leave to federal employees, which has little to do with war. Facing constant attacks from Republicans for holding a series of hearings to impeach Trump over the Ukraine scandal, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and the Democratic leadership are under pressure to avoid logjams of major legislation before holiday recess and year-end deadlines.
“[Democrats] just weren’t willing to go to the mat to kill the bill,” said Hassan El-Tayyab, a legislative representative for the antiwar Friends Committee on National Legislation, in an interview. “Republicans were ready to kill the bill in the beginning to get whatever they wanted through, so I think they started out on an uneven playing field.”
The military spending package faces a final vote in Senate, where the Afghanistan Papers recently released by The Washington Post loom large. Based on confidential interviews with more than 400 experts and insiders of the 18-year-long U.S. war in Afghanistan, the papers detail a secret history that reveals what so many of us suspected all along: The war is a failing, $1 trillion quagmire, and the Pentagon officials consistently worked to deliberately mislead the public about it. The U.S. entered the war to defeat al-Qaeda but has spent years fighting the Taliban, a completely different group.
“What were we actually doing in that country? We went in after 9/11 to defeat Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, but the mission became blurred,” one unidentified U.S. official who served as a liaison to NATO is quoted as saying in a government interview uncovered by The Post. “What are our objectives? Nation-building? Women’s rights?… It was never fully clear in our own minds what the established goals and timelines were.”
From commanders in the field to top White House officials working under both President Bush and President Obama, serious doubts were raised about achieving any level of success in Afghanistan, where the U.S. spent billions of dollars every year fighting vague enemies and attempting to build a stable democracy in a war-torn country. Bush and Obama adopted divergent strategies as another war raged in Iraq, and both failed. Corruption siphoned off huge sums of aid from U.S. taxpayers. The lives of thousands of soldiers and tens of thousands of civilians have been lost.
Yet the war continues, with some 13,000 troops still stationed in Afghanistan. Only Congress has the constitutional power to declare war, and lawmakers are supposed to hold the president and Pentagon to account. They also hold the power of the purse, but year after year, Congress has approved massive military spending in Afghanistan and across the globe in the form of the NDAA and other legislation.
Rep. Adam Smith, the Democratic chair of the House Armed Services Committee, defended bipartisan compromises on the 2020 military spending authorization ahead of the vote on Wednesday. The initial House package passed without a single Republican vote and was promptly then gutted by the GOP-controlled Senate. Smith said Democrats were able to preserve some of their priorities and produce “the most progressive defense bill” in years.
“Throughout the negotiations I failed in one way: I was unable to turn President Trump, Leader McConnell, and Chairman Inhofe into Democrats and convince them to suddenly accept all of the provisions they despise,” Smith said in a statement. “Nonetheless, we have accomplished more with this bill than anyone ever thought possible given the realities of a Trump White House and a Republican-controlled Senate, and we should be proud of that.”
After years of sitting on the sidelines, Congress began asserting its war authorities as Trump made a series of foreign policy blunders while cozying up to dictators. Earlier this year, Congress passed historic legislation rebuking Trump for selling weapons to the Saudis even as the Saudi coalition stood accused of war crimes for killing thousands of civilians in Yemen. Most recently, the House passed a bipartisan resolution condemning Trump’s decision to pull a small number of troops from northern Syria, allowing Turkey to invade a pro-democracy stronghold held by longtime U.S. allies.
Even Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, one of Trump’s steadfast defenders, bluntly criticized the president for the move. Deadly violence and a humanitarian crisis erupted in northern Syria despite a “ceasefire” agreement brokered by the U.S. in October. A few weeks later, Trump held a bilateral meeting with President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Turkey’s authoritarian leader, and emphasized their “friendship.”
Leaders in both parties know that voters are fed up with endless war, but agree to spend billions on the military year after year, encouraging the Pentagon’s adventurism and worldwide presence. However, with Democrats debating bold proposals such as Medicare for All and free public college tuition, progressives in Congress are making it clear that the money would be better spent at home. Their rebellion in the House makes a point, but there were not nearly enough Democratic votes to challenge the status quo.