WASHINGTON — House Speaker Kevin McCarthy of California vowed the Republican-controlled chamber would not write a “blank check” for Ukraine.
Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, floated the idea of reducing the number of general officers and doing away with “woke” social policies in the military to cut down wasteful spending.
Talk of budget cuts has engulfed the House since McCarthy’s tumultuous path to the speakership last week came with an agreement to cap federal spending at fiscal 2022 amounts. The concession to the Republicans’ right wing instantly sparked fears of a $75 billion cut to the defense budget.
Some Republicans have tamped down concerns that any belt-tightening will affect the military and some experts say the chances of Congress passing a slimmed down national security budget are virtually nonexistent. But the priorities of ultra conservatives in the House are bound to take center stage as the faction asserts greater influence under the McCarthy speakership.
“Where I think we’re going to maybe see some of this battle play out, as we do every year, is in the National Defense Authorization Act process, where the House Armed Services Committee and Senate Armed Services Committee in Congress can limit and control the use of Department of Defense dollars,” said Jonathan Lord, a fellow at the think tank Center for a New American Security and former staff member on the House committee. “It’s there that you’ll find language — ‘No funds authorized to be appropriated to do x thing’ that we think is ‘woke,’ for example.”
A variety of social issues can fall under the “woke” umbrella, including diversity, equity and inclusion training, funding for women’s reproductive health and support for gender identity initiatives. House Armed Services Committee Chairman Mike Rogers, R-Ala., Jordan and other Republicans have argued the military’s attention to “the left’s social agenda” has hurt readiness.
“If we’d focus on getting rid of all the ‘woke’ in our military, we’d have the money we need to make sure our troops get the pay raise they deserve, we’d have the weapons systems and training that needs to be done so that we’re ready to deal with our adversaries around the planet,” Jordan said Sunday on Fox News.
Rep. Stephanie Bice, R-Okla., insinuated last month that transgender service members were taking financial advantage of the Pentagon’s policy to provide hormone therapy, mental health care and surgeries for troops diagnosed with gender dysphoria. She said a cadet at Fort Sill, Okla., had told her that he enlisted in the military because he wanted the government to pay for gender reassignment surgery.
“It was shocking that he would actually verbalize that in front of all those officers and other cadets standing there,” Bice said in December during a House Armed Services committee hearing. “This is an issue, and I do think we should be looking at it.”
The cost of transgender care is minuscule when compared to the overall size of the defense budget. The Pentagon spent $15 million treating transgender troops from 2016 to 2021, including about $3 million for surgery, according to the Defense Health Agency. The parts of the spending plan dealing with personnel are so vast and expensive that carving out items targeting “woke” culture will have a negligible impact, said Michael Herson, president of the lobbying firm American Defense International and a former Defense Department official.
“The issue itself is significant to the [Republican] base but as far as dollars are concerned, it’s not significant,” he said.
Some Republican lawmakers might seek to chip away at operation and maintenance, the bulk of the Pentagon budget that funds fuel, supplies, equipment maintenance, training and other operating costs, Herson said. They might also call for reductions in research and development but procurement of weapons will likely get more funding amid the war in Ukraine and China’s rising military power, he said.
“They’re kind of in a box, they have to worry about the Pacific theater — that requires the ability to project power there,” Herson said. “And we’re reminded now that a land war in Europe is not completely out of the question so you also need to invest in artillery, armor and things to support ground forces on the move. It’s a question of: Are there other missions that they’re willing to sacrifice? I don’t see it right now.”
Rep. Adam Smith of Washington, the top Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee, argued Wednesday that the military could absorb a smaller spending plan. He unsuccessfully fought in the summer alongside progressive Democrats to slash the defense budget top line by $37 billion.
The U.S. can lean on partners that are beginning to step up to counter the threats posed by China and Russia, Smith said. Getting rid of costly, aging weapon systems that the Pentagon wants to retire instead of fighting to keep them, as some lawmakers do, also can save significant money, he said.
“Do I believe that we can cut the Pentagon budget by 10%, and they would get better at what they do? Yeah actually I do,” Smith said Wednesday at a Brookings Institution panel discussion. “If we have to live with $800 billion, can we do it? Yes, we can.”
Efforts to inflict such a cut have repeatedly failed on the House and Senate floors in recent years, Lord said. That is not expected to change with a House run by a slim majority of Republicans, most of whom back a larger Pentagon budget.
“I think ultimately, looking at both caucuses, the votes are not there to support a straight across top-line cut,” Lord said.
Aid to Ukraine will become more challenging to pass, but the military portion of it will retain strong bipartisan support even among hard-line Republicans, Herson said. Many lawmakers have argued investing in Ukraine’s defense will help prevent further security crises in Europe and reduce Russia’s ability to menace America.
“A lot of these hard-core Republicans will ask for offsets and also increased accountability of where all that stuff is going so it just creates additional hurdles,” Herson said. “The will is still there to get it done, it’s just the how.”
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