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The Democrats’ Defense Bill is a National Shame

It's clear who the party's leadership would rather compromise with, and it's not the left.

U.S. advisors help a Ukrainian soldier fix his helmet.
Jack Crosbie

On Tuesday, the House passed the annual National Defense Authorization Act giving the Pentagon up to  $768.1 billion—not only the largest budget it has ever been awarded but also $25 billion more than President Joe Biden requested.

To do so, Democratic leadership in both the House and Senate sold out dozens of their own members (the final vote was 363-70, with 51 Democrats voting against) and sacrificed some of their largest priorities in the bill in order to garner conservative compromise votes, rather than negotiate with House progressives to loosen the military’s stranglehold on American politics.

On a good day, the foreign policy of this country is incoherent; on a bad day, it is genocidally destructive. (The utter insanity surrounding the threat of a Russian invasion of Ukraine is a good recent example of this.) But the meat and potatoes of U.S. foreign policy are often governed, like the rest of the country, by dollars and cents, which are determined by the bill passed in Congress each year. By now we’re becoming a broken record: Somehow, despite full control of both houses of Congress, Democrats have managed to betray their own members and sabotage their own party platform in order to pass a bill.

The conflict arose on relatively simple grounds. House progressives, perhaps naively, hoped that with full Democratic control of the legislative process they could cut the military budget, or at least scale back its inexorable increase, by some amount. Instead, they were presented with a bill $25 billion larger than their own president requested. They pledged to vote no.

Instead of working with them, Democratic leadership allowed the GOP to run rampant in the bill in order to get compromise votes.

Perhaps the most egregious example of this is what happened to Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand’s amendment to the bill seeking to take serious crime investigations among military personnel out of the DoD’s chain of command. Previously, crimes like sexual assault and murder between members of the military were handled by military courts, which were often controlled by the commanding officers of the soldiers involved. This led to, as you can imagine, massive miscarriages of justice, conflicts of interest, and pain for thousands of service members.

As The American Prospect’s David Dayen writes, the bill now does… sort of that, but not really:

While it empowers an independent “Special Victim Prosecutor” for certain crimes—including sexual assault, rape, murder, and domestic violence—military commanders would still retain court martial convening authority on these cases. Commanders would also select jury members in court martial cases resulting from these crimes, approve witnesses, and manage the trials.

It’s worth noting that Gillibrand never wanted this bill to be part of the NDAA in the first place. She had the votes to pass it as a standalone law, but the Democratic head of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Sen. Jack Reed—a retired Army captain—insisted on folding it into the NDAA so it would be under his purview. And sure enough, a far worse version of the bill is what came out.

Democratic capitulation to the GOP also ceded ground on other issues, like the fact that control of Washington, D.C.’s National Guard will stay with the Executive branch, rather than being passed to the mayor of D.C. The GOP doesn’t want this because it’s a step in the road to D.C. statehood.

There are two ways of looking at this. One, of course, is to blame progressives for once again trying to use the slim power that they have to influence the party that they belong to this is stupid. The other is to ask why the big-tent party that allegedly represents progressives would rather open its big tent flaps to the overt fascists across the aisle rather than have a dialogue with the people already inside.

The end result, as it has been so many times before, is the Democratic Party excusing its broken promises with a plea for pragmatism. That would be compelling if “pragmatism” offered anything to the American people. Instead, all it has come to mean is more money, more resources, and more pain being thrown down the bottomless well of American empire.