The Corner

National Security & Defense

A Fight over Defense Spending in the COVID-Relief Negotiations

The U.S. Capitol during a morning rainstorm on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., March 25, 2020. (Tom Brenner/Reuters)

As talks surrounding the next congressional pandemic-relief package drag on and the two parties remain far apart, Democrats — and some Republicans — have singled out the billions of additional defense spending in the GOP’s proposal for criticism.

The $1 trillion GOP proposal unveiled on July 27 contains $30 billion in additional defense spending, including $8 billion explicitly allocated to procurement and updating of military weapons programs. Democrats have, predictably, pounced on this spending as a means of attacking the package. “Amphibious ships don’t feed hungry children, and the Senate Republican bill doesn’t meet the desperate needs of the American people,” House Appropriations chairwoman Nita Lowey (D., N.Y.) said last week. Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer called the bill a “wish list for defense contractors,” and said that, “If you can barely afford the rent, can’t find work, can’t feed your kids, or are fighting [for] your family’s future, the Republican plan leaves you out in the cold.”

It’s a catchy talking point, but how much merit does it have? $30 billion is a tiny chunk of the larger $1 trillion package, and $11 billion of that chunk is more or less acceptable to all parties; it is earmarked to reimburse defense contractors that reoriented their efforts to the COVID crisis and gave paid and sick leave to workers barred from federal buildings by public-health mandates. In truth, only the $8 billion or so dedicated to Pentagon procurement and weapons programs — or eight-tenths of 1 percent of the bill’s total cost — is really drawing heat to GOP lawmakers.

The most intense criticism came from both the left and right over a $1.75 billion allocation for a new FBI headquarters in Washington, D.C., Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell slammed the spending, calling it “non-germane.” Senator Lindsey Graham (R., S.C.) said, “That makes no sense to me.” It turns out that the FBI provision was almost entirely an effort by the administration: McConnell noted that Treasury Secretary Mnuchin and White House chief of staff Mark Meadows wrote this part of the bill. While the FBI certainly needs a new building, McConnell’s point is well-taken: “I would hope all of the non-COVID related measures are out, no matter what bills they were in.”

Democrats may have a kernel of a point in attacking that $8 billion on the grounds that COVID-relief packages should stick to providing COVID relief. Some more libertarian, fiscally hawkish members of the Senate GOP caucus have complained about the bill’s spending. Others, however, have specifically argued that its defense appropriations are a form of COVID relief. Senate Appropriations chair Richard Shelby (R., Ala.) said the spending would “bolster the industrial base at a tenuous time.” A Shelby aide later argued to the Washington Post that the spending “protects all of the downstream supplier base, and those are the places that are hurting the worst.”

If one rejects Shelby’s argument and accepts the validity of the criticism leveled by Lowey, Schumer, et al., it must be pointed out that the $3 trillion stimulus bill Democrats proposed in March included $10 million for the National Endowment for the Arts, $10 million for the National Endowment for the Humanities, $5 million for new laptops and technology for Congress, $100 million for fisheries, and funding for cannabis research.

Little, if any, of that money would have gone to “feed hungry children” or “meet the desperate needs of the American people,” either. That doesn’t justify the GOP’s bill, but it certainly highlights the various priorities tucked away in huge spending bills, like this one.

Carine Hajjar is an editorial intern at National Review and a student at Harvard University studying government, data science, and economics.


The Latest