National View: Disappointments abound in 2022 Pentagon budget

From the column: "Providing for the national defense is our government's most important priority, but blindly increasing our defense dollars isn't a path to more security."

Elizabeth Shackelford.jpg
Elizabeth Shackelford

On Dec. 15, the Senate passed the National Defense Authorization Act, the annual legislation authorizing the yearly defense budget. At $768 billion, it breezed through the House and the Senate with widespread bipartisan support, at a time when that's extremely rare. But many people weren't happy with the end product.

The high price tag and total lack of scrutiny on this budget are hard to square with where America is today. Having just ended our longest war, you'd be forgiven for expecting some form of peace dividend, particularly at a time when we have massive needs for investment at home. Twenty years of war in Afghanistan and Iraq cost the American people nearly $6 trillion, most paid for in debt. But somehow our defense bill is still increasing. Congress even tacked on $25 billion more than the Pentagon requested. This includes five more Navy ships and five more F-15EX jets than were requested, and a dozen F/A-18E/F Super Hornet fighters that the military didn't ask for or need. A conservative estimate puts those add-ons alone at more than $4 billion dollars.

The Pentagon has long been flush with cash while domestic needs suffer from serious underinvestment. Now would be a great time to start scrutinizing military spending more, given ample evidence of waste, fraud, and abuse. After all, Kabul fell only weeks after the U.S. withdrawal, raising questions about why we funneled hundreds of billions of dollars into an Afghan military that promptly melted away.

If that moment wasn't sufficient to raise doubt, recall the Afghanistan Papers released in 2019. A Washington Post investigation revealed utter dishonesty from administration after administration about the war in Afghanistan, which kept on keeping on despite ample evidence that it was doomed to failure. The Pentagon should face more scrutiny and caution now, but instead it is getting a raise.

Congress passed the National Defense Authorization Act with almost no public debate. Instead, a small group of House and Senate staffers from relevant committees met privately to hash out final details, sharing the full draft only six hours before the House vote.


The summary of the bill alone is 670 pages. Normally, this legislation is subject to a week or two of floor time wherein these issues can be publicly debated and their merits considered. Without that, the public is in the dark, and the influence of even most members of Congress is sidelined.

With inflation, the 10-year cost of this budget is about $8.3 trillion. To put this in context, it is nearly double the total cost of all the Biden administration's economic legislation combined. The COVID-19 stimulus package cost $1.9 trillion, the bipartisan infrastructure plan $550 billion, and the Build Back Better bill has been chipped away to about $1.8 trillion. The economic legislation has all been significantly cut, too, and the passage of Build Back Better โ€” a bill designed to address apocalyptic climate change and gaping holes in our social safety net โ€” was delivered a severe blow.

With provisions to reduce the cost of child care and health care, Build Back Better would help American families in need now, but many of its core provisions have been gutted or heavily trimmed already, based on claims that we can't afford it. If paid family leave is cut, as expected, the United States will remain one of seven countries on the planet that doesn't provide new moms with any leave.

These provisions aren't luxuries. They're essential to keep America competitive globally and address rising inequality as more Americans fall behind. Economic security is an essential component of national security, after all. Twenty years of war has done little but cost the American people, and a dozen more Super Hornets won't do much for them, either. But no one seemed concerned about the deficit when the Pentagon budget was at issue.

What was cut from the final National Defense Authorization Act is disappointing, too. The absence of a slew of provisions that directly addressed the values President Joe Biden championed at the recent Democracy Summit is conspicuous, particularly since they had widespread bipartisan support. Those provisions included tools to combat corruption overseas, to hold Saudi Arabia accountable for gross human rights violations, and to prevent attacks on journalists. It's hard not to draw the conclusion that prioritizing human rights and democracy is more talk than action. It doesn't help that the Senate also just rejected a bill to block a $650 million arms sale to Saudi Arabia so that America would be less complicit in war crimes in Yemen.

Providing for the national defense is our government's most important priority, but blindly increasing our defense dollars isn't a path to more security. Contrary to what some politicians would have you believe, that is why national-security dollars and decisions should be scrutinized more, not less. Our congressional representatives are our tools to ensure that scrutiny happens and that government spending delivers what Americans need.

If these issues bother you, too, let your representatives in Washington know.

Elizabeth Shackelford is a senior fellow on U.S. foreign policy with the Chicago Council on Global Affairs and previously a U.S. diplomat. She also is the author of "The Dissent Channel: American Diplomacy in a Dishonest Age."

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