In this 2018 photo, Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., left, stands as Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, second from left, speaks, accompanied by Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash., and Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I.

In this 2018 photo, Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., left, stands as Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, second from left, speaks, accompanied by Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash., and Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I. AP / Alex Brandon

Democrats Retreat on Nuclear Policy

The 2020 authorization bill fails to check Trump’s worst impulses.

Question: How do you go from a National Defense Authorization Act that in July was opposed by every House Republican to one that was approved by more GOP votes than Democratic ones and that President Donald Trump called a huge win that he cannot wait to sign?

Answer: Add Space Force and parental family leave and take out all of the progressive national security provisions.

The House passed the compromise NDAA last night; President Trump has said he will sign it. This final bill is a world apart from the version passed by House Democrats in July. The House version, ably led by Rep. Adam Smith, D-Washington, chair of the House Armed Services Committee, prohibited deployment of Trump’s new “low-yield” nuclear weapon for Trident submarines, which defense experts called “a gateway to nuclear catastrophe.” It prohibited unauthorized U.S. military action against Iran, which Trump came within 10 minutes of ordering in June, and prohibited U.S. military support for the Saudi-led intervention in Yemen. And it supported extension of the New START treaty, which Trump seems to have every intention of sacking even though Russia supports keeping the crucial pact. The list goes on.

Related: Nuclear Experts Beg Congress to Push Back on Trump Administration’s ‘Dangerous Impulses’

Related: HASC Chair on Mini-Nukes: 'We’re Not Trying to Manage a Nuclear War'

Related: Nuclear Weapons Are Getting Less Predictable, and More Dangerous

In other words, the House bill would have constrained the most dangerous tendencies of an out-of-control White House. This is exactly what you would expect Democrats to do when faced with a President that they firmly believe is a danger to U.S. national security—and are now seeking to impeach on that basis.

Not surprisingly, Republicans do not share this impression of the President, and they deeply opposed the nuclear policy provisions in the House NDAA. “From the moment we passed our bill through the House without the support of a single Republican vote, it was clear that our counterparts in the Senate and White House fundamentally opposed the Democratic priorities included in the bill,” Smith said. The Senate version of the bill, drafted by the GOP, included none of these priorities. When the two bills went to conference, the process went dark with no open meetings or votes. Smith was left to work out the details with Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Oklahoma; Sen. Jack Reed, D-Rhode Island; and Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Texas.

Then the trouble began. First, whereas Republicans were united on their priorities, the Democrats were not. Sen. Reed did not agree with many of Rep. Smith’s nuclear policies and apparently did not support him in the conference when the GOP conferees moved to axe the provisions. Smith was out-voted by the two Republicans and Reed. Simply put, the Republicans wanted to kill the nuclear provisions more than the Democrats wanted to save them.

Second, the Democratic leadership had other, higher priorities that went beyond defense policy. For example, Rep. Smith committed himself early on to reaching bipartisan agreement on the NDAA and having it passed by Congress and signed by Trump. Once he announced this intention, he lost much of his negotiating leverage. The GOP could threaten to walk away and let the talks collapse. Smith could not. Moreover, in the context of impeachment, the Democrats were determined to show that they could still govern by passing bills like the NDAA. Finally, the Democratic leadership had its own specific policy priorities: paid parental leave, “widow’s tax” repeal, and PFAS (toxic chemicals). 

The outcome was a disaster. The topline budget rose to $738 billion and the major constraints on Trump were ripped out. Others were watered down. The most we can say about the final NDAA is that it includes some useful language on arms control and missile defense, but nothing major. Such weak tea certainly does not justify supporting a bill that funds Trump’s excessive $2 trillion program to rebuild the nuclear arsenal, among other things. Rep. Ro Khanna, D-California, a member of the House Armed Services Committee and a vice-chair of the progressive caucus issued a joint statement with Sen. Bernie Sanders, D-Vermont, a presidential candidate, calling the final agreement “a bill of astonishing moral cowardice.” Over 30 progressive national security organizations (including Ploughshares Fund) sent a letter to Congress opposing the final bill as doing “almost nothing to constrain the Trump administration’s erratic and reckless foreign policy.” Senator and presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren said she would oppose the bill, calling it a “$738 billion Christmas present to giant defense contractors.”

What can we learn from all this?

First, Rep. Smith did an excellent job of developing strong policy positions and organizing his caucus to support them in the House NDAA. But he and Democratic leaders must face a hard truth: if their highest priority is passing the NDAA, they cannot negotiate effectively with the Republican caucus. They must be willing to walk away from the table to get the leverage to win. There is nothing sacred about passing the NDAA. 

Second, once again Republicans were more united than Democrats on nuclear and foreign policy. If Rep. Smith and Sen. Reed had been in agreement on restricting President Trump’s authority to wage war, nuclear or otherwise, they could have supported each other.

Finally, Democrats cannot seek to impeach Trump and yet sometimes act as if he is a normal president. They cannot attempt to remove him from office as a danger to national security and yet hand him $738 billion in military spending with no limits on his nuclear weapons development, ability to attack Iran, freedom to abandon arms control treaties, and so much more. Trump is nothing if not a disrupter. The Democrats must give the president a taste of his own medicine.