The best thing about the House appropriations bill passed last month is that it is largely symbolic. Were it otherwise, it would bode poorly for the rebuilding of the United States military. Passed on a strict party line vote, the bill is part of an omnibus package outlining appropriations for four federal agencies including the Defense Department. Yet, the bill is almost irrelevant to the funding process, as it was passed in the absence of any agreement on funding levels for 2020. This virtually guarantees that the bill will have to be reworked once final funding levels are hashed out.
That reworking may well be rancorous. More so than perhaps any other issue, matters of national defense typically enjoy bipartisan support, with members of both parties working together to advance legislation. That comity has broken down this year in the House, even in the normally more congenial Armed Services Committee. Both the 2020 authorization and appropriations bills being brought to the House floor were reported out of committee with only largely support from Democrats, which brings us back to the new House appropriations bill for the Defense Department.
The good news? It is not all bad. It contains a pay raise for troops, needed in this period of tough recruiting. It funds a dozen more F-35 fighter jets than the Trump administration requested. It also fully funds several of the highest priority Pentagon programs, including the Air Force B-21 bombers, the Navy Columbia class submarine, and the Army long range precision fires. It provides more money for defense than in 2019, reflecting a clear understanding that all the years of underfunding have left our military insufficiently prepared to counter rising threats from China and Russia.
However, the bad news is that the bill contains a slew of provisions with the potential to damage our military readiness, now returning after years of neglect and budget cuts. More than 30 adopted amendments dole out millions of defense dollars to projects like research on pancreatic cancer or tick borne illness. While potentially valuable, they have no discernable link to national defense. They look suspiciously like earmarks, but there is no doubt some loophole that allowed them. The bill also fails to authorize the Trump administration request for a minor increase in the size of the Army, which is too small for the missions it has been given.
Another provision seeks to overturn the well considered Pentagon policy on transgender service by preventing spending to implement the new rules. That provision would recklessly place the transgender individuals suffering from gender dysphoria at greater risk from mental injury by subjecting them, a population already proven to be at a higher risk of suicide and severe anxiety, to the unique stresses of military service.
In another slip, the bill punts the Trump administration request to start a branch of service to handle space operations, despite clear evidence our potential adversaries are bent on weaponizing space. It also denies the Trump administration request for a small amount of money to develop a counter to the willful Russian violation of the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces Treaty. Finally, the bill fails to provide the funding needed to deploy a low yield ballistic missile on submarines, an action which most experts believe is necessary in deterring potential Russian nuclear miscalculation.
The road ahead for defense appropriations for 2020 is long and arduous. Congress must establish a defense budget number and then reconcile the competing House and Senate bills. Here is to hoping that, as they slog through the process, lawmakers can find a way to keep the good items in this bill and eliminate the bad items, so that the Pentagon can keep the momentum rolling toward restoring the military that our nation needs.
This piece originally appeared in The Hill on 7/2/19