Rep. Ro Khanna, D-Calif., accompanied by Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Calif., and Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., speaks during a news conference Jan. 9, 2020.

Rep. Ro Khanna, D-Calif., accompanied by Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Calif., and Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., speaks during a news conference Jan. 9, 2020. AP / Jose Luis Magana

Liberals ‘Need to Get On the Defense Committees,’ If They Want Change

“At this point, I think defense is just not that important to progressives one way or the other,” said one expert after Democrats came away from negotiations empty handed.

Though Democrats control the White House and both chambers of Congress, liberals who spoke loudly to limit defense spending and change certain military policies still largely came up empty handed in this year’s $768 billion defense policy bill. Republicans, meanwhile, walked away with a $25 billion win. 

Now some progressive national security advocates are urging those liberal members of the party to learn from the loss and take steps to make sure their voices are heard in the future:  by serving on defense committees and negotiating more strategically. 

Progressives were largely absent from the process of writing a final version of the fiscal 2022 National Defense Authorization Act. Besides a few notable national left-wing leaders like Sens. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., and Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., in the Senate, few progressive liberals serve on the armed services committees that oversee the military and shape the legislation. As a result, their priorities were overwhelmingly left out of the final bill, in which Republicans notched big wins. 

“It seems like we’re ending up in a pattern where Democrats are thinking where the bill will end up and starting there with their negotiating position,” said Stephen Miles, the executive director of Win Without War, a group that advocates for smaller defense budgets. “They need to put forward what they want, not what they think Republicans will agree to, and then negotiate from there.”

Progressives pushed to cut defense spending, but the final bill includes a Republican-backed $25 billion boost above the budget requested by President Joe Biden. Other Democratic priorities were stripped out during conference negotiations, including requiring women to register for the draft, which some liberals opposed, and prohibiting the military from supporting the Saudi-led war against the Houthis in Yemen. 

Some liberals were surprised Democrats came up so empty handed in negotiations. The amendment to end support to Saudi Arabia’s fighting in Yemen, for example, was taken out of the final bill. But a similar provision in 2019 had the support of then-vice presidential national security advisors Jake Sullivan and Colin Kahl, who now serve as Biden’s national security advisor and Pentagon policy chief respectively.

“A lot of Democratic priorities were left on the board,” said Rep. Ro Khanna, D-Calif., who sponsored the Yemen amendment. “My amendment was stripped out in conference...I understand why it was stripped with Trump. I don’t understand why it was stripped this time.”

The bill passed the House on Dec. 7 with strong bipartisan support, but got more Republican votes than Democratic. It’s expected to pass the Senate this week. 

Progressives all year publicly railed against defense spending levels while lawmakers were shaping the bill. In August, Reps. Mark Pocan, D-Wisc., and Barbara Lee, D-Calif., two leaders of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, penned a letter to House Armed Services Committee Chairman Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash., criticizing the bill for authorizing $25 billion more than Biden requested.

“At a time when America’s largest national security threat is a global pandemic, our spending priorities should embrace efforts such as increased COVID vaccination efforts abroad instead of continually increased military spending—especially during a period of military withdrawal from foreign wars,” said more than two dozen lawmakers who signed on to the letter.

Khanna is the only one of the 27 signatories who serves on the House Armed Services Committee. 

The annual defense policy bill is written by the House and Senate Armed Services Committees. It provides the policy outlines and permissions for appropriators, who pass actual spending levels in separate legislation. In the House, members have a chance to offer amendments at an all-night public session called a markup, while the Senate panel considers amendments to its bill behind closed doors. 

It’s much more difficult for members of Congress who aren’t on those two committees to push amendments on the floor of the full House and Senate. Most years, the number of amendments is limited by committee or party leaders. But some years, such as this year, no amendments by non-committee members were allowed in the Senate, so the entire process is driven by those who serve on the armed services committee. The House had considered more than 400 bipartisan amendments on the floor.

“If progressives ever want to get serious about influencing defense, they must develop the expertise to know what to change and how to change it,” said Todd Harrison, director of defense budget analysis at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “That means they need to get on the defense committees and start shaping defense policy and spending bills from the inside. Offering amendments on the floor is not an effective way to do it. Saying you want to cut 10 percent of the defense budget without having a plan for what specifically you would cut is just posturing. At this point, I think defense is just not that important to progressives one way or the other. They are spending far more time and energy on domestic issues.”

Khanna agreed that progressive lawmakers need a strategy for America’s national security that is “a more compelling message than just saying, ‘Cut, cut, cut,’ without a reorientation of a smarter defense strategy.”

“I would love to have more people engage seriously in national security issues in the progresive movement…[but] it has to be standing up for human rights, but also answering the question, what are we doing to keep America safe?...That vision can be critical of defense contractors and legacy industries, but it’s not enough to say we aren’t for legacy industries without first saying what we are affirmatively for.”

There are some prominent progressives who serve on these panels, including Khanna and Rep. Sara Jacobs, D-Calif., in the House, and Warren and Sanders in the Senate. But because progressives generally do not seek out seats on these committees, these voices are in the minority and can struggle to influence the bill. Even Warren’s national prominence has not translated into major policy shifts on defense. 

“It would desperately help things to have more progressives on the committee,” Miles said, adding that Warren lending her voice to the successful push last year to rename bases that honored Confederate leaders is a model for how progressives can leverage their positions on the committee. “You routinely see the armed services committees reflect a far more hawkish subset of the Democratic caucus than the full committee at large.”

Because the defense authorization bill is often seen as a must-pass piece of legislation, Democrats must also think strategically about how to ensure the bill passes, said Mandy Smithberger, director of the Center for Defense Information at the Project on Government Oversight. On Tuesday, 13 senators voted against cloture to effectively stall passage of the bill, including some of the chamber’s most progressive members such as Warren, Sanders, Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., and Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass. 

“If they don’t think that they’re going to be able to get progressive votes no matter what, it means they have to rely more on Republicans to be able to get there,” she said. 

Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated how many NDAA amendments were considered on the House floor.