Where the GOP draws the line
Congressional Republicans don't always cower before Donald Trump's demands. Occasionally — very occasionally — they find it within themselves to defy the outgoing president or shrug off his threats in favor of some greater good.
So it goes with the National Defense Authorization Act. Trump has threatened to veto this year's edition of the defense spending bill for two reasons: It requires the military to rename bases currently named for Confederate generals and — unrelated to any real national security function, but very related to the president's hurt feelings about having his election tweets labeled as the falsehoods they are — it doesn't contain legislation stripping social media outlets of some legal protections.
No matter. The House on Monday passed the NDAA by a veto-proof majority that included most Republicans. The GOP-controlled Senate appears poised to follow suit. The whole episode, Politico noted, is the "first and last Trump rebellion" by congressional Republicans. Trump's huffing and puffing simply hasn't mattered.
"I'm pro-military and I'm from a pro-military state," Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.V.) said, "so I'm not really worried about that."
On one hand, it is good in these deeply polarized times that Democrats and Republicans can come together for bipartisan cooperation on any topic at all. On the other hand it is also incredibly frustrating. Why can't GOP members of the House and Senate find their spines when Trump is threatening to usurp more than two centuries of constitutional governance by falsely claiming that Democrats stole the presidential election he lost? And why can't Congress get its act together on other, non-military issues of vital national importance?
Right now, the legislative branch can't agree on a plan to pay for the rest of government — the House and Senate are expected to pass a one-week resolution to keep funding agencies at their current level. That's more progress than has been made on a desperately needed pandemic stimulus bill, which has been gridlocked for months. It seems the needs of ordinary Americans simply don't rate as highly as the need to buy new fighter jets.
Indeed, it's a point of pride among congressional leaders that this marks the 60th year in a row both parties have come together to approve a defense bill. "The NDAA is one of the few pieces of legislation Congress passes year after year — because both parties and both houses recognize how important it is to honor our commitments to our men and women in uniform and to secure our national defense," Sens. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.) and Jack Reed (D-R.I.) said in a joint statement.
That sounds reasonable, even noble, until you realize that the federal government has at least partially shut down 18 times since 1976 because appropriations bills weren't signed on time. Studies show those failures have taken their toll on the broader U.S. economy.
Why, then, does military spending overcome the usual bad habits of Congress, and congressional Republicans in particular? Some of it is surely patriotism, or at least a desire to avoid appearing unpatriotic — would you want to run for office with a vote against funding the armed forces on your record? Surely not. It is also true that the defense budget functions as a kind of back-door socialism in America, a way for the federal government to prop up local economies across the country in the name of national security. The Pentagon scatters defense contracts far and wide in part to ensure continued bipartisan support for such funding.
"As a result, many members of Congress view defense spending as a bipartisan stimulus program, where the immediate benefits of continued investment — protecting local jobs — outweighs long-terms costs in strategic trade-offs, waste, or inefficiency," Rebecca U. Thorpe, author of The American Warfare State, wrote last year. The new NDAA, coming in at a whopping $740 billion, promises to continue that trend. (Retired Gen. Lloyd Austin III, President-elect Joe Biden's pick for defense secretary, doesn't seem a good bet to break the cycle — he serves on the board of Raytheon.)
The Republicans' decision to ignore Trump's veto threat fits a broader pattern within the party: It defers to him on most issues, except where the armed forces are concerned. Former Defense Secretary James Mattis denounced the president as a "threat to the Constitution" earlier this year, but resigned from the Cabinet only when Trump announced he was withdrawing troops from Syria. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) has redefined toadyism during Trump's tenure, but has pushed back against attempts to end the war in Afghanistan. And Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has backed legislation that would essentially force Trump to maintain troop levels abroad.
Outside of tax cuts, it is difficult to think of another set of issues that so unifies the GOP. (Though there are some exceptions.) President Trump has damaged every American tradition and institution he got his hands on during the last four years, and done it with the acquiescence of his party. But even he couldn't get between Republicans and their support for forever wars and bigger military budgets.