Is the Biden Administration Proud of its Pentagon Budget?
If the White House wanted to boast about its spending plans, it wouldn't have buried the news on Memorial Day weekend and given reporters just 10 minutes to ask questions.
If you want to minimize the attention given to a particular bit of information, says Washington’s conventional wisdom, release it late on Friday — before a long weekend, if possible. That’s what the Biden administration has done with its 2022 budget proposal.
If they were proud of it, the administration would have released the budget request on a Monday or Tuesday, stirring up a political media frenzy to feast on all week long. They’d have flooded airwaves with Biden officials and backers extolling the president’s virtues, doing all they promised to do on the campaign trial just eight months ago.
Instead, this was the equivalent of turning in a late homework assignment by slipping it under the professor’s door after he’s left town. It was the bare minimum.
Budget Day is a big day for the Pentagon press corps, particularly for reporters who cover the defense industry, weapons, and service branches. Dozens more reporters than usual crowd into the building to grab thick copies of budget briefing books hundreds of pages long, filled with details on spending requests for each military service branch. There’s usually a standing-room-only press briefing by the Pentagon’s No. 2 civilian and budget officials giving the president’s top line spending priorities, followed by back-to-back briefings by budget officials from each service branch. Most reporters called in via phone, due to COVID restrictions, but the attention was as great as ever. What is released and reported can move markets.
This year, Biden’s team scheduled the Pentagon comptroller—actually, an official “performing the duties of” as a placeholder, because the Biden comptroller was only just nominated this week—to give a Friday afternoon presentation of the topline spending request after a short speech by Deputy Defense Secretary Kathleen Hicks, who quickly exited the room. The administration gave reporters all of 10 minutes to ask questions of Biden’s placeholder. Ten minutes, to go over about $715 billion in taxpayer spending.
At the moment, President Joe Biden was at Joint Base Eustis-Langley, in Hampton, Va., speaking to U.S. troops to mark Memorial Day Weekend. Biden was featured live on CNN. But defense reporters missed that probably-poignant moment. They were nose-down in briefing books, awaiting a sequence of shorter-than-usual budget briefings by each of the service branches.
For most of the day, Americans watching cable news airwaves saw little about Biden’s budget, which, apparently, was just what the White House wanted. CNN mostly fed viewers a stream of reporting and punditry on a much more historic happening: the vote in the Senate where Republicans blocked the Democrats’ push for an independent investigation into the deadly Jan. 6 insurrection on the Capitol building that was led by right-wing white supremacists and extremists. It was a vote Senate Democrats could have scheduled anytime they needed it, and given room for Biden’s budget to shine. Instead, it just stole more air out of the room.
Why bury this spending plan? One reason: Biden has a Congress problem. As the day’s vote illustrated, a split-power majority in the Senate affords little room for lurching in any direction. That’s why the massively expensive $1.7 trillion infrastructure spending package has become such a controversial deal. Republicans are dragging their feet with a $928 billion counter-proposal. Nobody disagrees that America’s infrastructure is in dire need of repair and modernization. Nobody disagrees that Americans need post-pandemic jobs. But politicians, as usual, are trying to sneak everything they can into a kitchen-sink bill, and here we are at the first weekend of the summer with no deal, no bridges, no roads, and little relief for Americans.
Why does that matter at the Pentagon? Well, the bigger picture always matters. All other federal spending storylines are subservient to this year’s infrastructure fight, not to mention the annual push-and-pull over taxes and spending. Perhaps the Biden administration doesn’t want to risk offending Republicans he’s currently negotiating with. Perhaps the White House doesn’t want to draw even more hard-line scrutiny from fist-pounding congressional Republicans who have criticized Biden as soft-on-defense since before he took office. Whatever the strategy, Americans will have to hunt a lot harder than usual to find out about Biden’s Pentagon spending plans.
There’s another reason Biden administration officials may not be so proud of their Pentagon spending plan: This is not really their ideal. Every first-year president is handed a budget request crafted by his predecessor’s administration, which they can then change to their liking. But it’s the product of months of planning by career and political officials in charge of everything from post offices to nuclear missiles under that previous president. In this year’s case, the lame-duck administration went one step further. After Donald Trump lost his November reelection bid, the White House launched a performative act of defiance: a new draft budget request for fiscal 2022. It was an insult to Biden, a waste of money for taxpayers, and total political theater. But they set markers, like wanting to buy four new Navy warships, that Trump Republicans in Congress still point to when criticizing Biden.
It’s now nearly June. Biden officials have taken five months since his inauguration to come up with their budget wishlist, longer than any administration of the last 100 years, and they’re still not operating at 100 percent. Many of the administration’s top Pentagon officials only just arrived at their seats. Under Secretary of Defense Colin Kahl, the top policy official in the building, was sworn in just four weeks ago. Army Secretary Christine Wormuth was confirmed on Thursday. Biden’s nominee to lead the Air Force and Space Force, Frank Kendall, had his confirmation hearing on Tuesday. Nobody has been nominated for Navy secretary, which oversees the Navy and Marine Corps.
The first truly all-Biden budget really is the next one, due in January 2022. It’s likely already being planned. In the meantime, if the administration wants Americans to buy into their defense spending plans, they’ll have some educating and convincing to do. But Biden Democrats, like Obama ones before them, say they want to demilitarize U.S. foreign policy and shift resources toward diplomacy. That means don’t expect a lot of chest-thumping about anything related to military spending. In about two weeks, Biden will attend a G-7 summit in the U.K., the NATO Summit, in Brussels, and meet Russia’s Vladmir Putin, in Geneva.
None of it is happening on a Friday.