Dual Letters From Congress Signal Hill Headed for Defense Spending Showdown

March 16, 2021 6:54 PM
NASA Photo

A debate between lawmakers over defense spending is brewing, as a group of progressive House members push for cuts to the defense budget while others argue for a boost to shipbuilding.

In a March 16 letter to President Joe Biden, 50 Democratic members of Congress argued for a decreased budget for the Defense Department.

“Recent reporting indicates that your first budget request to Congress will recommend the same level of Pentagon spending as the last fiscal year. While we are heartened that your Administration is not contemplating expanding the Pentagon’s already inflated budget, our new Democratic majorities in Congress along with your Administration should go further,” the letter reads.

The Biden administration in May is slated to unveil its budget proposal, which Bloomberg News and Politico recently reported would hover between $704 and $708 billion for the Defense Department.

“Rather than requesting a flat Pentagon budget, we urge you to seek a significantly reduced Pentagon topline,” it continues. “Thoughtful analysis from experts across the political spectrum shows that significant cuts can be achieved without reducing the support, pay or benefits provided to our men and women in uniform and their families. We could cut the Pentagon budget by more than ten percent and still spend more than the next ten largest militaries combined.”

A 10 percent cut from a $704 to 708 billion budget would result in a total Pentagon topline of $634 to 637 billion.

While the letter does not call for a specific percentage or dollar figure for the cuts, lawmakers write that “[h]undreds of billions of dollars now directed to the military would have greater return if invested in diplomacy, humanitarian aid, global public health, sustainability initiatives, and basic research.”

Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.) is the only member of the House Armed Services Committee to sign the letter. Other signatories to the letter include progressive voices like Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), Katie Porter (D-Calif.), Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.), Dan Kildee (D-Mich.) and Mark Pocan (D-Wis.). No members of the House Appropriations defense subcommittee signed the letter.

The letter from progressive Democrats comes one day after a group of bipartisan lawmakers from Mississippi and Maine sent a letter to Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Deputy Defense Secretary Kath Hicks pushing for a bigger navy and a “robust” request for the shipbuilding account in the upcoming Fiscal Year 2022 budget submission.

“We are concerned that the DOD and the Navy are not keeping pace with China on shipbuilding. Due to the long lead times necessary to properly procure and resource a larger fleet, attention must be paid to this critical issue immediately,” the letter reads.

The states’ four senators – Sens. Susan Collins (R-Maine), Angus King (I-Maine), Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) and Cindy Hyde-Smith (R-Miss.) – all signed the letter, in addition to Reps. Trent Kelly (R-Miss.), Steven Palazzo (R-Miss.), Jared Golden (D-Maine) and Chellie Pingree (D-Maine).

The letter also specifically asks the Navy to keep buying the Arleigh Burke-class destroyers and their ultimate successor, the DDG(X) platform. General Dynamics Bath Iron Works in Maine and Huntington Ingalls Industries’ Ingalls Shipbuilding in Mississippi both build the Navy’s Arleigh Burke-class destroyers.

“The appropriate composition of a growing fleet is also a significant consideration. The Navy’s Large Surface Combatants (LSC) are a vital component of the surface fleet and must be an important focus of future shipbuilding plans and efforts,” the letter reads. “DDG-51s are the true workhorses of the Navy, conducting freedom of navigation missions in the South China Sea, leading maritime security patrols in the North Atlantic, and deterring Iranian aggression in the Persian Gulf.”

The two letters come as the Biden administration performs a “budget relook” of the FY 2022 request the last administration put together, with shipbuilding topping the list of items under assessment. The Trump administration in December unveiled a plan that showed a boost to the shipbuilding account in FY 2022, but it’s unclear what the new administration will do with the proposal.

USNI News reported last week that the Pentagon is weighing a decrease to the Navy’s aircraft carrier force as part of the budget evaluation, a potential move that some lawmakers have already criticized.

Rep. Elaine Luria (D-Va.), a former Navy nuclear-qualified surface warfare officer who is also the vice chairwoman of the HASC, quickly criticized the possibility of reducing the number of aircraft carriers.

“As we look to expand the U.S. Navy’s presence in response to malign Chinese activity and illegal maritime claims, the last thing we should consider is cuts to our carrier fleet,” Luria said in a statement issued after USNI News’ report on potential cuts to the carrier force.

The Virginia Democrat has also called for an increase to the Pentagon’s budget.

“Now is not the time to cut defense spending. Our defense budget should grow at 3 to 5 percent above inflation to counter an increasingly threatening China,” Luria said in the statement. “One cannot place a value on the unparalleled power projection and deterrence provided by our fleet of nuclear-powered aircraft carriers and their embarked air wings. I urge the Biden administration to immediately drop this from consideration.”

As part of slashing the carrier force, the Pentagon could opt to not refuel USS Harry S. Truman (CVN-75), which is approaching its midlife overhaul, USNI News reported.

Senator Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.), the ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, in a statement to USNI News on Tuesday dismissed the idea of retiring Truman early.

“I am aware of no new information that would merit reconsidering the law that requires the Truman to be refueled,” Inhofe said.

The Pentagon tried to retire Truman early in its FY 2020 budget submission under the Trump administration, a move that lawmakers criticized at the time. The administration reversed the decision when former Vice President Mike Pence made a trip to the carrier and said the Navy would keep the ship in the fleet.

Mallory Shelbourne

Mallory Shelbourne

Mallory Shelbourne is a reporter for USNI News. She previously covered the Navy for Inside Defense and reported on politics for The Hill.
Follow @MalShelbourne

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