The House of Representatives has now considered defense budget and national security issues three times, and it is possible to come to some conclusions.
It is more difficult to judge the Senate, which has largely avoided national security issues for more than six months.
About the House:
While there is rising receptivity among House Members to cut the defense budget, there is no majority for that position.
If there are to be any serious cuts in military spending, those reductions will have to be mandated in debt ceiling/budget negotiations. If the White House and leadership pressure for reduced Pentagon budgets, it will be hard for Congress to add additional money.
The rising tide against defense spending is particularly noticeable among Republicans. A tally by Darcy Scott Martin of True Majority shows that 69 Republicans (29% of the House GOP) voted for either the Frank (D-MA) or the Mulvaney (R-SC) amendments to trim the increase in the Defense Appropriations Bill. Those 69 Republicans provide a good target list for future votes.
But just as it was encouraging to see so many Republicans voting for these amendments, an identical portion of Democrats voted against the Frank amendment ? 54 Democrats, or 29% of those voting.
While the 181-244 vote that defeated the Frank amendment was heartening, it was still a defeat.
Media reports after passage of the Defense Appropriations Bill mostly focused on the fact that the Pentagon had dodged a bullet (pun intended) on defense spending and that Republicans did not follow through on their rhetoric:
AP: House Boosts Military Budget In Time Of Austerity;
National Journal: House Approves Defense Spending Bill, Resists Major Funding Cuts;
The Hill: Once again, the House-passed defense appropriations measure would be a win for defense firms and military personnel;
Politico: Tough House rhetoric on defense cuts so far remains just talk;
CQ Today: Despite Austerity Vibe, GOP Resists Most Defense Cuts.
The February 2011 vote in favor of a Rooney (R-FL) amendment cutting funds for the second F-35 engine, approved 233-198, turns out to be the exception, not the rule.
To have a chance to succeed on the House floor, an amendment needs 1) a strong bipartisan group of sponsors, 2) real Member-to-Member work with colleagues, 3) a bipartisan group of speakers on the House floor, 4) a major campaign of outside organizations.
Outside campaigns are hard to mount without sufficient notice and good organization In the chaos of multiple amendments on many subjects offered in many cases with little or no advance notice, it was hard to mount that kind of campaign. The Republican leadership, to its credit, has allowed a more open process for offering amendments than the Democrats had. Still, it is hard to challenge the Appropriations leadership.
The May 26 vote of 204-215 against the McGovern (D-MA)-Jones (R-NC) Afghanistan amendment provided one of the few real opportunities for outside organizations to organize such a campaign. It helped that House Democrats were close to unanimous in support of the amendment.
On Libya, the House delivered mixed messages. The House on Libya, is from the old show tune, Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered by the conflict. During consideration of the Appropriations Bill, the House:
Voted 225-201 to bar assistance to the anti-government forces;
Voted 316-111 to bar spending in violation of the War Powers Act;
Voice voted to bar U.S. ground troops;
Refused to block funding the war several times, mostly closely on a 199-229 vote against an Amash (R-MI)-Kucinich (D-OH) amendment.
The House delivered a similar confused message on June 25, when it refused to authorize U.S. action when it rejected a Hastings (D-FL) amendment 123-295 but declined to cut off funding for the American involvement in the fighting when it rejected a Rooney (R-FL) amendment 180-238.
As a result, the President continues to have a free hand in Libya.
As it has through numerous conflicts since World War II, Members of Congress do not wish to be responsible for a bad outcome of a war, such as the defeat by Gaddafi of the anti-government forces.
The Democratic Party is more “pro-Libya war” than the Republican Party in the House. Republicans voted 132-106 for the Amash-Kucinich amendment while Democrats voted 67-123 against. It is not clear how much the Republican position is anti-Libya war and how much is anti-Barack Obama.
On Afghanistan, while close to a majority voted for a withdrawal plan in May, when presented with two amendments to cut off funding the war, the House overwhelmingly defeated a Lee (D-CA) amendment (97-322) and a Garamendi (D-CA) amendment (133-295).
A variety of other amendments to cut the Afghanistan Infrastructure Fund, the Afghanistan Security Forces Fund, the Overseas Contingency Operations Transfer Fund or assistance to Pakistan also failed. Congress does not want to be blamed for the “loss of Afghanistan,” whatever that means.
The closest vote related to Afghanistan came when the House narrowly defeated a Cohen (D-TN) amendment to cut $200 million from the Afghanistan Infrastructure Fund. The vote was 210-217.
The Cable reporter Josh Rogin nailed it in describing the splits within the Republican Party on national security issues: “The Republican Party has been deeply split or at least seriously confused about its national security identity in recent weeks. There’s no consensus on how to proceed in Afghanistan, other than to say that politics should not trump national security considerations. There’s no agreement on what to do in Libya, other than to blame President Barack Obama for mishandling the situation there.”
But the Democratic Party is similarly split.
To demonstrate its “frugality,” the House was willing, albeit by a narrow 226-201 margin, to vote for a McCollum (D-MN) amendment to cut funds for Pentagon bands by $124.8 million, with 90 Republicans joining 136 Democrats to pass the amendment.
John Isaacs is executive director of Council for a Livable World.