For the better part of a decade, then-Rep. Bernie Sanders of Vermont went to the House floor each year and made an earnest if quixotic effort to slash the authorizing bill that guided federal spending on American intelligence activities.
Sometimes, he wanted to cut it by 10 percent, sometimes by 5 percent and, at least once, he tried to limit intelligence spending to the previous year’s level. He targeted Pentagon appropriations and nuclear research at the Energy Department for similar reasons. In looking back through the Congressional Record, his priorities were consistent and clear: America was spending too much on national defense and too little on domestic programs. He even mocked those who continued to support increased defense and intelligence spending after the fall of the Soviet Union.
“The Soviet Union, in case some of my colleagues have not heard, no longer exists. The Warsaw Pact no longer exists,” he said during one debate. “But our children are still hungry, our elderly people still cannot afford their prescription drugs. Millions of kids still cannot go to college because they lack the funds.”
The last time Sanders offered such an amendment in the House was in the Congress before the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist assault on the U.S. His campaign declined to answer a question about whether the attacks changed his mind on the funding of U.S. intelligence agencies, and the campaign of his rival for the Democratic presidential nomination, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, did not reply to a request for comment.
But Sanders stopped offering amendments to cut intelligence spending after that He voted to ratify the use of force in pursuit of the perpetrators of the attacks—noting, at the time, that he worried about the U.S. unintentionally fueling terrorism by over-using its military capabilities overseas. And he voted for the next intelligence authorization bill.
There is no question that Republicans would, if Sanders became the nominee, hammer him over his aversion to intelligence spending in the years before Osama bin Laden became a household name in the U.S.
Nor is there any question that they would use his words against him. Right now, Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., is blasting Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, for voting against defense bills in Congress, and any of the GOP candidates would seek to portray Sanders as weak on national security.
Of course, Sanders bears no responsibility for the state of U.S. intelligence capabilities in the run-up to 9/11. His efforts to slash spending failed—and failed by a lot. But his worldview, at a time when American officials were aware of the rising threat of terrorism, is fair game for the GOP.
Don’t expect Hillary Clinton to spend a lot of time making that argument in the primary, though. Every time she sounds a hawkish note, Sanders reminds her that she voted to give President George W. Bush the authority to go to war in Iraq—a vote that still quite clearly sticks in the craw of Democratic voters who chose pure-on-the-war Barack Obama over her in 2008.
Moreover, Sanders is hardly alone in the Democratic Party in believing the U.S. has long overspent on defense and intelligence at the expense of domestic programs. When I was a kid, there was a button proclaiming the wisdom of the Pentagon holding bake sales to fund fighter jets.
Even in the 1990s, Sanders’ reasoning was shared by about half the Democratic Party’s members, give or take, each time he tried and failed to eliminate funding for the CIA, the NSA and other American intelligence agencies. A handful of Republicans usually joined him in votes that ended with lopsided scores such as the 115-311 roll call in 1996. If anything, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have only made Democrats more leery of defense spending, meaning Sanders may not pay any penalty in the primary for having tried to strip funding for intelligence agencies as the terrorist threat mounted around the world.
But if Sanders wins the Democratic nomination, he’ll be forced to explain why he thought that the American intelligence and defense agencies were over-funded in the 1990s and how he views the threat, and exertion, of U.S. military force in the larger context of American foreign policy. That is, he’ll have to explain why his less-muscular approach is a better one than that of the Republican nominee, who surely won’t have an Iraq war vote hanging as a political anchor from his neck.
He may want to come up with an answer sooner, rather than later.
Roll Call columnist Jonathan Allen is head of community and content for Sidewire and a co-author of the New York Times-bestselling book “HRC: State Secrets and the Rebirth of Hillary Clinton.” He and co-author Amie Parnes are working on a follow-up book about the 2016 election. Follow him on Twitter at @JonAllenDC
See photos, follies, HOH Hits and Misses and more at Roll Call's new video site. NEW! Download the Roll Call app for the best coverage of people, politics and personalities of Capitol Hill.