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This year’s debate over defense spending threatens to disrupt a tradition of bipartisan consensus-building over funding the military

A woman with long dark hair, wearing eye glasses and a white suit speaks from a lectern. Standing behind her are suited men and women, some holding papers in their hands.
Members of the House Freedom Caucus speak to reporters on July 14, 2023, hours before the House passed its version of the National Defense Authorization Act. Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images News/Getty Images

Each year for the past six decades, congressional representatives from both sides of the aisle have come together to pass the National Defense Authorization Act. Because the bill involves the military – a traditionally popular institution – it has historically received bipartisan support.

But that record was threatened in the Republican-led House of Representatives on July 14, 2023, when members passed the US$886 billion bill by a 219-210 mostly party-line vote. Reflecting the current polarized politics of the U.S., the bill stands virtually no chance of passing in the Democratic-controlled Senate without major modifications.

The measure lacked full support in the House not because of differences over military funding itself, but because it included Republican amendments that put restrictions on diversity training, abortion access and medical care for transgender troops.

Just after the bill’s passage, House Speaker Kevin McCarthy tweeted, “We don’t want Disneyland to train our military,” and “House Republicans just passed the bill that ENDS the wokism in the military and gives our troops the biggest pay raise in decades.”

As scholars of American politics, we study Congress and believe that this unusual politicization of the defense budget could affect other important legislation in Washington.

A look at the National Defense Authorization Act and what’s happening in 2023

Since 1961, Congress has approved defense spending annually using a two-step process. The first and current step, the National Defense Authorization Act, sets defense policies and provides guidance on how money can be spent. In the second step, which will come after the Senate votes on its version of the bill and the two chambers reach a compromise version, the House and Senate Appropriations Committees approve the spending.

But Congress has become increasingly polarized over the years. Congressional Republicans have grown more conservative, congressional Democrats have become more liberal, and members of the two parties agree on less and less.

In the first year of the Biden administration, the House approved the National Defense Authorization Act by a 316-113 margin. In 2022, the act passed the House by a 350-80 margin. As points of comparison, the 2002 version of the bill passed 359-58 in the House, and the 2003 version passed 361-68 in the House. The reauthorization process happens the year before the act goes into effect.

During the 2023 reauthorization process, the bill included amendments from the most conservative members of the Republican Party, many of them from the House Freedom Caucus, who, according to their Twitter profile, support, in part, open, accountable and limited government. The amendments seek to ban the Department of Defense from paying travel expense reimbursements for service members getting an abortion or transgender surgeries and hormone treatments.

The debates over the amendments were particularly heated. As just one example, House Freedom Caucus member Matt Rosendale tweeted, “If someone does not know if they are a man or a woman, they should not be having their hand on a missile launch button.”

Democrats like Rep. Jim McGovern decried House Freedom Caucus tactics: “It’s outrageous that a small minority of MAGA extremists is dictating how we’ll proceed.”

A suited man holds his hands parallel and chest-height as speaks from behind a lectern. American flags stand behind him.
Democratic House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries speaks about amendments to the National Defense Authorization Act during a July 14, 2023, news conference. Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images News/Getty Image

For the House Freedom Caucus, this was an opportunity to advance its conservative agenda and try to reverse the policies of the Democratic administration. At the same time, these types of amendments decreased the odds that the bill would receive bipartisan support.

Previous defense spending bills have addressed social policy, too

This is not the first version of the defense authorization bill that included language about social issues. One reporter wrote in 2022 that the National Defense Authorization Act’s record of bipartisan support “has also made the bill a popular vehicle for tacking on legislation that has little to do with defense.”

In one notable example, the 1993 National Defense Authorization Act included the infamous “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” compromise, which allowed gay and lesbian citizens to serve in the military if they did not make their sexual orientation public. The measure stemmed from President Bill Clinton’s campaign pledge to lift the ban on gay people serving in the military. But once in office, Clinton met substantial opposition to his proposal from military leaders and their congressional allies.

The stalemate could have been resolved only by an executive order, which Congress opposed, or legislation, which Clinton opposed. “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was middle ground. Seventeen years later, Democratic President Barack Obama signed a bill ending Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.

Another example of social policy’s being embedded in the National Defense Authorization Act occurred in 2009, when Senate Democrats attached the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, which strengthened federal protections against crimes based on race, religion or nationality and added protections against crimes based on gender, disability, gender identity or sexual orientation, to the annual defense authorization bill. It passed by a 68-29 vote in the Senate, but since the House and Senate had different versions of the bill, a conference committee reconciled the differences. The hate crimes provision remained, and the legislation was signed by President Obama.

A smiling man speaks while standing at a lectern in a room full of smiling people.
President Obama speaks in 2009 about the enactment of the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act. Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

The 2013 National Defense Authorization Act included several provisions added by the Democratic-controlled Senate addressing the equitable treatment of women in the military. Among them: insurance coverage for abortions in cases of rape and incest; mandatory discharge of convicted sex offenders; and mandatory sexual assault prevention training. The Senate version of the bill passed 98-0. The provisions remained after the House and Senate reconciled their versions and were part of the bill President Obama signed.

More recently, the 2021 National Defense Authorization Act included a provision to remove Confederate names, symbols and monuments from Department of Defense property. Democratic Sen. Elizabeth Warren sponsored the measure in the Senate, and Rep. Anthony Brown, Democrat from Maryland, and Rep. Don Bacon, Republican from Nebraska, sponsored it in the House. There was enough bipartisan support for that legislation that the House and Senate overrode President Donald Trump’s veto.

What each party stands to gain or lose from this fight

The narrow House victory will represent a policy win for the House Freedom Caucus, help members raise money for future election cycles and lessen the likelihood that members will be challenged in a primary from the right flank of their party.

At the same time, these tactics may make it easier for Democrats to win in crucial swing districts during the 2024 election cycle. Likely providing a preview of talking points Democrats will use against Republicans in swing districts, Democratic House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries said, “Extreme MAGA Republicans have chosen to hijack the historically bipartisan National Defense Authorization Act to continue attacking reproductive freedom and jamming the right-wing ideology down the throats of the American people.”

Defense reauthorization was once considered a rare policy issue on which the parties could agree. But, the Republican-led House’s passage of a bill with little Democratic support most likely renders the bill dead on arrival in the Senate, where Democrats are in the majority.

It’s an important sign that there’s no longer an issue that’s immune from the hyperpolarization that defines today’s American politics.

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