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Taibbi writes: "In budget negotiations this week, congressional Democrats seem to have brought knives to the Republican gunfight. This time, the issue was defense spending."

F22 fighter jet on runway. (photo: Getty Images)
F22 fighter jet on runway. (photo: Getty Images)

The Pentagon Wins Again

By Matt Taibbi, Rolling Stone

06 April 19

In an effort to prevent non-defense cuts, House Democrats grant the DOD exactly the raise it wanted

n budget negotiations this week, congressional Democrats seem to have brought knives to the Republican gunfight. This time, the issue was defense spending.

The Democrat-controlled House Budget Committee voted 19-17 Wednesday to move a bill sponsored by Chairman John Yarmuth (D-KY) out of committee.

Called the “Investing for the People Act of 2019,” it’s essentially the Democrats’ answer to Donald Trump’s radical budget proposal from early March. As expected, the legislation gives the Pentagon a raise.

The Trump budget proposes a fundamental re-configuration of America’s spending priorities. It seeks a whopping 9% cut overall in non-defense or NDD spending (NDD stands for “non-defense discretionary “ spending), while seeking a 5% increase in defense spending.

Trump wants to reward the Pentagon for flunking its first-ever audit last year by giving it a fat bump — from a record $716 billion to new record of $750 billion. Meanwhile, Trump hopes to slash non-defense spending from last year’s $597 billion figure to $543 billion this year.

As reported by Rolling Stone a few weeks ago, the early word on the Hill was Democrats were not planning to seriously oppose the hike in Pentagon spending. Instead, the strategy would be to try to negotiate with Republicans to raise non-defense spending, basically by surrendering on the question of a defense hike.

Rolling Stone was told the Democrats’ opening negotiating number on defense was going to be “really high.”

This turned out to be true. In fact, the Yarmuth bill sets defense spending at the same level – $733 billion – that Pentagon officials like then-Defense Secretary James Mattis were asking for at the end of last year, before Trump told them to ask for a bigger raise.

As recently as last December, Democratic members like Armed Services Committee chair Adam Smith (D-WA) were mocking the $733 billion number.

“What is the magic of $733 (billion), can you explain that to me?” Smith said last year. “I’ve asked that question of several Pentagon officials, thus far I have not been satisfied with the answer.”

Now, in the Yarmuth budget bill, $733 billion is the Democrats’ opening offer to the Pentagon, made in an effort to prevent Trump and the Republicans from slashing non-defense spending.

Trump’s 2020 budget proposal made a joke of the 2011 Budget Control Act, which essentially forced Congress to raise and lower defense and non-defense spending together through a series of caps.

This concept is known as budget “parity.” Roughly speaking, defense is supposed to be capped at around 53-54% of discretionary spending, and non-defense is supposed to get the rest.

The Pentagon has always been able to get around even those generous caps through a number of loopholes, particularly with Overseas Contingency Operations or “OCO” spending. Often called “war funding,” OCO budgets technically don’t count as defense spending, even though they are.

To make his defense-hike/non-defense cut strategy work under the Budget Control Act, Trump this year had to propose a massive hike in OCO funding, going from $69 billion last year to $165 billion this year.

The Democratic bill proposed by Yarmuth seeks to “adhere to the principle of parity” by once again linking defense and non-defense spending. This is not necessarily a bad idea, but with control of the House, one might have expected at least a symbolic effort at reducing a defense budget number that even Trump last year called “crazy” (before he changed his mind).

Instead, the vote Wednesday all but assures next year’s defense number will set a new record. The committee vote included some surprising names among the yays, including Barbara Lee, best known for being the brave congresswoman who cast the only no vote for George W. Bush’s invasion of Afghanistan in 2001.

The issue is not without controversy. Some Democrats believe it’s more important to keep non-defense spending from falling than it is to cut the Pentagon budget. The deal in place seems to have been made with the aim of mollifying key donors from the defense industry, and perhaps win some bipartisan support for raising non-defense spending.

Others see it as the latest example of a negotiating strategy that has failed Democrats in the past.

One Hill source complained, “The Republicans ask for a lot and get a lot. We never learn.”

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-6 # maverita 2019-04-06 10:44
Perhaps Democrats see the exploding deficit, which this will boost even higher, to be a good talking point in the 2020 elections?
+16 # economagic 2019-04-06 12:14
Yes, this is Obama's disastrous (and stupid) negotiating strategy: State your best offer at the outset then continue to cede ground. It is also consistent with the "centrist" (NOT!!!) Dems, the Fossil Fools who prioritize pandering to Wall Street and the War Industry, and maintaining the worst health care financing system in the developed world, over addressing global warming.
+17 # dawill4 2019-04-06 16:37
"Centerist" is just a propaganda code word for we do whatever Corporate America wants. It came with the big money sell out of the Dem's in the 80's when the DLC and Clinton machine was built in the party (now replaced with Third Way) and the old progressive leaders were pushed out. Centerist = Corporate America, Big Money,the 1%.
Now they feel threatened by rank and file standing up so the propaganda campaign is to make Progressive a scary boogeyman word. We are fighting just as much the Democrat machine as the GOP machine. The root is Corporate money and control. :(
+17 # janie1893 2019-04-06 13:53
Perhaps Trump plans on creating a small mid-east war just before the elections so he can claim to be a war president, a slam dunk to remain president. Then he has 2 years to expand the war and there will be another 'hell on earth!' but a lot of money to be made!!
+10 # Kootenay Coyote 2019-04-06 15:26
When the Pentagon wins, the People lose.
+5 # 2019-04-06 15:55
The american empire has military bases (80+ and counting) all over the world to appropriate all necessary resources required by "American corporations". Some where along the way, mostly around WW2, the elites discovered that it was less messy to do it this way, rather than to conquer and then manage a whole bunch of territores. I don't see how we can extricate ourselves from this situation and have an economy that sustains corporate America...
+8 # wrknight 2019-04-06 20:16
Our nation could easily be protected against any foreign invasion with less than one fourth the Pentagon budget. The bulk of our military spending is part of the corporate welfare program intended to protect American corporate interests and has little to do with national security.
+6 # ktony 2019-04-06 22:04
Excuse me. That is 800 to 900 bases worldwide, (and counting.)
+1 # Jim at Dr.Democracy on Facebook 2019-04-10 00:36
Not even close. About 800 bases in more than 70 countries:
+5 # dawill4 2019-04-06 16:27
In Taibbi's last article about the Pentagon audit and all the holes in it from systems that are antiquated, to multiple different systems and nothing can be matched it seems, I couldn't help but think why don't we build a completely new single source system?
We forget about the failed and unmatchable prior audits and just start from scratch. Day one so that going forward we CAN get successful audits because everything is going through a new system. Yes that is going to cut out some command and fiefdoms but it one thing that needs to be centralized. (Much like their IT does and isn't).
It would probably take a t least 5 yrs to select contractors and build it and would cost billions I'm sure but the end result is that within a decade we would have reformed the Pentagon so we could keep track of spending effectively. Meanwhile they just keep wasting money.
Not ideal but we're never going to fix the existing system. So we need to build a better mouse trap to replace it. MHO.
+3 # wrknight 2019-04-06 20:21
That would only give the Pentagon more money to spend for as long as it would take them to make it work (which would be forever). Better to simply cut the budget in half and eliminate the OCO funding entirely.
+5 # 1dfnslblty 2019-04-06 16:57
Dem-WA Adam Smith must have huge ties to Boeing and military contractors for him to support the budget proposal.
As do each of the other [non]representa tives in congress.
Oligarchy and kleptocracy at usa’s finest!
War before election will be The People's reward.
Protest Loudly.
+8 # Rodion Raskolnikov 2019-04-07 06:26
Yeah, the Pentagon always wins the budget fights but it always loses wars. What's the point. Actually I am glad that the Pentagon always loses the wars it drags the nation into. They are illegal and criminal wars and it is right that the Pentagon should lose. But this should also be a prime reason to cut its budget.

Democrats need to become the party of a peacetime economy if they want to win in 2020. People don't want the Forever War. They know it is just empire building and maintenance. And empire means now what it has meant for the last 500 years -- the rape and pillage of dark skinned peoples. Empire is white supremacism at its worst. Democrats should know this but apparently many of them do not.

I also think it is always important to point out that much of the War Budget is hidden in other departments so the Pentagon's budget can appear to be small in relation to the total federal budges. But consider that all veterans costs are in a separate department. All nuclear bombs are paid for by the dept. of Energy. The dept of State pays for most contractors (i.e., mercenaries). We are still paying the costs of past wars. And the Pentagon's share of the current budget deficit is never credited to the Pentagon. The total is well over $2 trillion a year.

This is how empires die -- their militaries bankrupt the whole nation. Those who are trained to kill also have insatiable appetites for your money. First they rob you, then they kill you.

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