House Defense Bill Could Use $10 Billion in Cuts. Lawmakers May Add $25 Billion in More Spending Instead.

As the calendar turns to September, House lawmakers are beginning their more intensive work on the annual defense policy bill, the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), with a House Armed Services Committee markup of the legislation set for September 1. As Chairman Adam Smith (D-WA) releases his version of the bill, and Ranking Member Mike Rogers (R-AL) proposes an amendment to add $25 billion to an already bloated proposal, it’s clear that there’s no shortage of risks or potential waste for taxpayers in this lengthy process.

Here’s a quick review of the red flags National Taxpayers Union sees in the House version of the fiscal year (FY) 2022 NDAA.

$6.5 Billion in Potential Savings From Afghanistan Withdrawal Gone to Waste

The detailed funding tables in Chairman Smith’s bill outline that the Chairman expects the military to avoid billions of dollars in potential costs from the end of Operation Freedom’s Sentinel (OFS), a more formal name for the war in Afghanistan. Across 23 line items marked “OFS Drawdown,” the Chairman envisions projected costs for the Army, U.S. Air Force, and Afghan military and law enforcement personnel coming in at $7.63 billion less than projected by the Biden administration in its budget request. After adding in $1.1 billion in costs for Afghanistan withdrawal and Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) processing for Afghans who aided the U.S. during the war, the Chairman still projects $6.5 billion in net savings from the end of OFS.

You would be mistaken for assuming the national defense topline would be reduced, relative to the President’s budget, by a total of $6.5 billion. Instead, the national defense topline in Chairman Smith’s NDAA is $1 billion higher than it is under President Biden’s proposal, indicating that Chairman Smith plans to spend the net savings from Afghanistan withdrawal and then some.

It would be understandable to apply some of the net savings to additional anticipated needs for the military withdrawal from Afghanistan or to make a small, but meaningful dent in America’s record debt and deficit levels. Unfortunately, it appears that even Democratic lawmakers -- typically more reluctant to authorize big defense budgets than their Republican counterparts -- are eager to reinvest these savings in more Department of Defense (DoD) spending.

The $753 Billion Budget Could Go $25 Billion Higher

The proposed defense budget is already much too high, but unfortunately an effort by Ranking Member Rogers to increase the budget an additional $25 billion -- which parallels an effort that received support from both Republicans and Democrats on the Senate Armed Services Committee -- would make the defense bill bloat even higher.

As mentioned, Rogers’ amendment would add $25 billion, or 3.3 percent, to the FY 2022 national defense budget topline of $753 billion. The amendment would top up combatant commanders’ annual “wish lists,” a budget practice NTU has heavily criticized. It would also prevent the Navy from retiring three cruisers, fatten up the Navy’s shipbuilding budget by $4.7 billion, and add $3.7 billion to a defense research budget that is already at a proposed $112.8 billion.

This proposal comes as Rogers criticizes the Biden defense budget request as “wholly inadequate” and “play[ing] politics with our national security,” even though the Biden budget is nominally higher than former President Trump’s last defense budget and already comes chock full of waste. Lawmakers must reject this effort to add $25 billion to the defense budget. If Ranking Member Rogers and other lawmakers wish to add $25 billion to the defense budget, they should find $25 billion in commensurate spending reductions in said budget.

Military Officials Receive Hundreds of Millions in Wish List Goodies

As noted above, NTU has long critiqued the practice of service branch leaders and combatant commanders furnishing “wish lists” to Congress every year, after the Secretary of Defense and the Biden administration submit their budget request to lawmakers. A coalition of budget and military watchdog organizations from across the ideological spectrum agrees with us.

Unfortunately, it was all too predictable that Chairman Smith and lawmakers would fulfill several wish list requests from the service branches and combatant commands in their proposed bill. Though ongoing reporting and transparency gaps prevent us from seeing the full picture of fulfilled “wish list” items, a few that stick out are:

  • $360 million for F-35 logistics/system support and procurement (Air Force requests);
  • $250 million for three additional V-22 Osprey aircraft (Navy request);
  • $154 million for artillery weapons systems (U.S. Marine Corps requests); and
  • $141 million for an increase in CH-47 Block II helicopters (Army request).

All in all, at least 10 wish list fulfillments add more than $1.2 billion to the defense bill’s final cost, an outcome that NTU and others warned about months ago.

The Newest Defense Budget Slush Fund May Get $1.1 Billion in More Slush

When lawmakers rolled out a Pacific Deterrence Initiative (PDI) proposal last year, as a special fund for countering the military ambitions of China, NTU and other watchdog groups warned that it could become a new home for wasteful and parochial spending in the defense budget.

Or, as NTU and the Project on Government Oversight’s Mandy Smithberger put it in an op-ed for Defense One earlier this year:

By the time the Biden administration proposed mothballing [the Overseas Contingency Operations] OCO [fund] earlier this year, lawmakers and experts from across the ideological spectrum recognized it had become an unaccountable, off-budget fund relieving policymakers of the pressure from Budget Control Act, or BCA, spending caps. In a post-BCA, no-caps era, PDI seemingly is the new DOD slush fund, putting upward pressure on a Pentagon budget that is sorely in need of downsizing. Congress should reject PDI before it’s too late.

Unfortunately, Chairman Smith has proposed topping up the Biden administration’s highly flawed $5.1 billion PDI request with an additional $1.1 billion, or 21.5 percent, bringing the total PDI request to $6.2 billion. Chairman Smith claims his legislation makes “prudent adjustments to funding levels on programs that are being poorly executed” -- a possible effort to address cross-ideological criticism of the Biden administration’s PDI budget request. The devil will be in the details, though, and it certainly goes without saying that Chairman Smith could have reformed the Biden administration’s PDI request without increasing the PDI request by a whopping $1.1 billion.

Tens of Billions of Dollars on the Line

Unfortunately, between the wasted Afghanistan savings, wish list requests, PDI slush, and possible support for Ranking Member Rogers’ amendment, it appears that the FY 2022 defense budget could waste tens of billions of dollars in taxpayer money. While this pales in comparison to some of NTU’s concerns with the $3.5-trillion reconciliation bill that Congressional Democrats and the Biden administration are hoping to pass later this year, it is nonetheless notable that there appears to (continue to) be bipartisan support for wasteful defense spending year in and year out. NTU encourages courageous lawmakers in both parties to instead work for defense spending reductions, and we have outlined multiple workable options for lawmakers to achieve such savings.