The Defense Authorization Bill Is Awful

If you like bloated nuclear arsenals, executive discretion to wage endless war, large checks to countries that aid our enemies, and institutionalizing hostility toward gays in the military, you will love the defense authorization bill passed yesterday by the House Armed Services Committee. Below are the lowlights. For slightly better news from the Appropriations Committee on homeland security spending, skip to the end.

  • The bill contains a provision replacing the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force against the perpetrators of the 9/11 attacks and their hosts. The Committee evidently found that legislation, which the last two administrations have used to justify all manner of power grabs, insufficiently open-ended. They add groups “affiliated” with al Qaeda and the Taliban to the list of certified enemies. Though disinterested in authorizing the war in Libya, the Congress may now give the President new authority to start new ones. Somewhere John Yoo is ruefully imagining all the creative ways he could have affiliated bombing targets with al Qaeda and Taliban. Certainly Pakistan would qualify, given its barely hidden support for elements of the Taliban and the suspicion that some of its intelligence agents have a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy on the whereabouts of al Qaeda leaders.
  • Nonetheless, the bill authorizes all $1.1 billion in military aid requested for Pakistan. An amendment intended to trim it failed.
  • Speaking of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, the Committee’s Republicans are determined to prevent its repeal from letting homosexuals feel comfortable in uniform. The bill outlaws gay marriage on military facilities. It also defines “marriage” in military regulations as the union of a man and a woman. The aim is to deny marriage benefits to gay couples. The bill also includes a provision sponsored by San Diego Republican Duncan Hunter that would keep Don’t Ask Don’t Tell in place until all four service chiefs agree that it will not impair combat effectiveness. That last provision will not become law, but it sends unfortunate messages. Beyond its implication that gays undermine military effectiveness, it reflects a tendency to defer to the wishes of the force on issues of its composition and use, at least rhetorically. That tendency erodes the traditional U.S. view of civil-military relations, driving a wedge between the military and the society it serves.
  • The bill contains several measures that will prevent future cost savings. It would block the executive branch from reducing nuclear weapons force levels in various ways unless the secretaries of defense and energy certify that the White House makes good on its offer of increased nuclear weapons modernization funding. Incidentally, the administration promised those funds in exchange for New START treaty votes that Senator Jon Kyl (R-Arizona) did not deliver, including his own. The bill would buy the Army more Abrams tanks than it wants, to keep the production line open. It requires the government to remain prepared to build the Joint Strike Fighter’s second engine and would reopen competition between the two engines should the administration request more funds for the first (Pratt & Whitney) engine, which seems likely.
  • The Committee made a modest effort to control government health care costs by mildly increasing annual premiums for retired military of working age. That’s progress. Premiums have not increased in 15 years. They are low enough that many retirees keep Tricare, the Military Health System coverage, rather than getting private health care via their new employer, thus shifting costs onto the taxpayer. But the Committee rejected the administration’s effort to peg future premium increases to medical costs rather than general inflation.

The full House or Senate will likely eliminate most of the damage. The taxpayer will get no relief from the House Appropriations Committee, however, which just released its planned spending levels for FY2012.  Defense will grow by about $17 billion from FY 2011, not including the wars, Department of Energy nuclear weapons spending, and military construction. No surprise there.

House appropriators deserve credit, however, for keeping the bloated Department of Homeland Security budget on the cutting board. The National Journal reports that appropriators would give the department $40.6 billion—$1.1 billion less than last year and $2.7 less than it requested. The bulk of the cuts come by providing less than half ($1.7 billion) of the requested spending for local security grants. The grants would now be distributed at the department’s discretion rather than requiring them to go to certain subcategories (e.g., ports) and using a formula to insure that every state get a taste.

Hopefully this is a step toward eliminating federal homeland security grants, which have grown into a seemingly permanent subsidy even for regions where the terrorism threat is wildly remote. If states think it worth sacrificing something to buy local counterterrorism capabilities, they ought to pay for it with their own budgets. Federalization of the spending takes those decisions from those in the best position to weigh local priorities and encourages states and cities to chase federal dollars by exaggerating their peril.