Just two days after the U.S. ended its 20-year war in Afghanistan, more than a dozen Democrats with strong ties to the military establishment defied President Joe Biden and voted to add nearly $24 billion to the defense budget for fiscal year 2022.
On Wednesday, 14 Democrats joined 28 Republicans on the House Armed Services Committee to adopt an amendment from Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Ala., to the fiscal year 2022 defense authorization bill that would boost Biden’s $715 billion spending proposal to $738.9 billion. The move follows the Senate Armed Services Committee’s vote to similarly raise the top line to more than $740 billion in its July markup of the bill.
The 14 House Democrats to support the defense spending were Reps. Jim Langevin of Rhode Island; Joe Courtney of Connecticut; Jared Golden of Maine; Elaine Luria of Virginia; Mikie Sherrill of New Jersey; Stephanie Murphy of Florida; Anthony Brown of Maryland; Filemon Vela of Texas; Seth Moulton of Massachusetts; Salud Carbajal of California; Elissa Slotkin of Michigan; Kai Kahele of Hawaii; Marc Veasey of Texas; and Steven Horsford of Nevada.
The decision by these lawmakers to approve the higher budget is not necessarily shocking in a political environment in which the military’s leaders demand an annual budget growth of 3 to 5 percent above inflation. Biden’s $715 billion proposal was a 1.5 percent nonadjusted increase above this year’s spending level.
One congressional staffer, who was not permitted to speak on the record, said in an email, “many Dems, especially when serving [on the House Armed Services Committee] are reluctant to look ‘soft on defense’ by opposing increases to the defense budget, so in some ways it’s surprising the majority of Dems still voted against the topline increase.” (Seventeen Democrats voted against Rogers’s amendment, not enough to prevent its inclusion in the bill.)
Many of the Democrats who voted for the $24 billion increase have close ties to the defense establishment. Their districts are home to job-promoting manufacturing sites and military bases, and much of the extra funding will go directly to projects at those locations. Many of the Democrats have also received generous campaign donations from contractors. In fact, Federal Election Commission data shows that in the first six months of this year, the 14 Democrats collectively received at least $135,000 from PACs representing the country’s top 10 defense vendors: Lockheed Martin, Raytheon, Boeing, Northrop Grumman, General Dynamics, L3Harris, Huntington Ingalls Industries, Leidos, Honeywell, and Booz Allen Hamilton.
A closer look reveals potentially strong incentives for those Democrats to support an increase in defense spending:
- By voting for the $24 billion raise, Courtney, chair of the seapower and projection forces subcommittee, secured more than $560 million for an extra Virginia-class submarine for the Navy. The submarine is built in Courtney’s district at General Dynamics Electric Boat’s Groton shipyard. The contractor’s PAC was his largest donor in the 2020 congressional election, and it gave him $3,000 during the first half of this year. He got at least another $10,500 from other major defense contractors, including $5,000 from Northrop Grumman’s PAC.
- General Dynamics’ PAC was also the largest donor in the 2020 election cycle to Langevin, chair of the emerging threats and capabilities subcommittee. Its Electric Boat subsidiary also has a manufacturing site in his state, employing Rhode Islanders to help produce the Navy’s submarines, including the Virginia-class one. Langevin received at least $14,500 from major defense contractors during the first six months of this year, including $4,500 from General Dynamics’ PAC.
- By voting for the budget increase, Golden nabbed more than $1.6 billion for Navy Arleigh Burke-class destroyers, which are based at Maine’s Bath Iron Works shipyard. In May, Golden joined forces with other members of Maine’s congressional delegation to push back against Biden’s plans to curtail purchases of the warship, complaining that it would break a 2018 contract with General Dynamics and Huntington Ingalls Industries.
- After voting for the $24 billion raise, Sherrill issued a press release touting that she secured tens of millions of dollars in additional funding for the Army’s Picatinny Arsenal, the largest employer in her district. Sherrill received at least $11,000 from top defense contractors in the first half of 2021, including $3,000 from Huntington Ingalls’s PAC and $2,500 from L3Harris’s PAC.
- Horsford’s Nevada district hosts two prominent military installations: Nellis Air Force base and Creech Air Force base, home to the 432nd Wing, which flies MQ-9 Reapers. The $24 billion addition includes $53 million for U.S. Central Command’s MQ-9 combat lines.
- Of the 14 Democrats to vote for a higher defense budget, Brown received the most donations from top military contractors this year: at least $25,000. In the 2020 election cycle, his largest donors were employees from contractor Leidos. Meanwhile, Luria received the next largest amount, $20,500, which included $8,000 from Huntington Ingalls’s PAC. She is known as one of the most hawkish Democrats; she was the only member of her party to vote against repealing the 2002 Iraq War authorization earlier this year.
- In addition, during the first six months of 2021, Veasey got $20,000 from the top 10 defense contractors’ PACs; Murphy got $12,000; Carbajal got $8,500; and Kahele got $4,500.
Meanwhile, some of the 14 Democrats who defied Biden to vote for greater defense spending have also tried to blow up their party’s efforts to achieve the president’s domestic policy goals — most notably, Medicare expansion, paid family leave, an extension of the child tax credit, and billions of dollars for clean energy and other climate initiatives. Golden and Vela joined New Jersey Democrat Josh Gottheimer last month to insist that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., hold an immediate vote on a $550 billion bipartisan infrastructure bill rather than wait to finish Democrats’ flagship $3.5 trillion reconciliation package. Murphy later joined that call, airing concerns about the size of the reconciliation bill. Their demands were ultimately unsuccessful.
Despite so many members of Congress voting to add money to the defense budgets, 17 Democrats still opposed Rogers’s amendment, including House Armed Services Committee Chair Adam Smith of Washington, who received $32,000 in donations from the PACs of the top 10 defense contractors in the first half of this year — the most of any Democrat on the panel.
Despite disagreeing with the increase, Smith and most of the others still voted to approve the overarching defense legislation and advance it to the floor anyway. (In fact, the 15 Democrats who voted against the higher budget but nevertheless passed the bill collectively received a few thousand dollars more in donations from the top 10 military contractors than the 14 who supported Rogers’s amendment.) Only California Reps. Sara Jacobs and Ro Khanna — who got no money from the vendors — stood their ground and voted against the bill’s passage.
“[A]fter twenty years of war in Afghanistan, twenty years of our servicemembers and their families answering the call, trillions of dollars in funding from the American people, I can’t support another misguided effort to overflow the Pentagon’s budget beyond what our military leaders are even requesting,” Jacobs said in a press release.
For Khanna, Wednesday was the first time he voted against moving the annual defense bill out of committee in five years; he argued that the $24 billion would be better spent on helping veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder, resettling Afghan allies and refugees, or vaccinating people against Covid-19.