New defense cardinals, same game

McCollum and Tester are both well versed in how the budget sausage is made

Just because they aren’t home to big defense interests doesn’t mean Minnesota and Montana will be left out in the cold when appropriators fund the Pentagon. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Just because they aren’t home to big defense interests doesn’t mean Minnesota and Montana will be left out in the cold when appropriators fund the Pentagon. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted March 22, 2021 at 10:30am

ANALYSIS — Thanks to a retirement and Democrats retaking control of the Senate, two new lawmakers will ride herd over the bulk of the Pentagon’s $700 billion budget this year.

Say hello to your new defense cardinals, ladies and gentlemen: Rep. Betty McCollum, a former teacher and retail manager from Minnesota, and Sen. Jon Tester, a farmer from Montana.

Both new chairs of their chambers’ respective Defense Appropriations panels are well versed in how the budget sausage is made. McCollum, who just became the dean of the Minnesota delegation, is starting her third decade in Congress. Tester, now in his third term, has been a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee since 2009.

But neither hails from a state that is the final destination for huge amounts of Pentagon dollars. In fiscal 2019, Minnesota accounted for 0.5 percent of total U.S. defense spending (or $2.7 billion), ranking 38th overall, while Montana’s 0.1 percent ($700 million) placed it at 47th, according to the Pentagon’s most recent state-by-state tally.

That sound you’re hearing all across defense contractor C-suites is … well, what’s the opposite of champagne popping? A just-opened bag of Doritos being hastily put away?

But let’s not be too quick to draw conclusions. It’s not as if Congress is going to turn off the tap for the Pentagon just because ships and planes or other big-ticket weapons aren’t built in those particular states.

“I’m not sure the game changes substantially because there aren’t big manufacturing interests” in Minnesota and Montana, said Gordon Adams, who served as the top budget official for national security in the Office of Management and Budget during the Clinton administration. “The politics of being an appropriator are going to outweigh constituent concerns.”

In practice, appropriators are dealmakers, well versed in the horse trading that accommodates another member’s spending priorities in order to secure your own, Adams said.

“That’s what makes appropriators so special: they have access to real money,” he said.

And they can move real money from column A to column B. Last year, appropriators added 17 F-35s (price tag roughly $1.7 billion) and an extra Virginia-class submarine ($2.3 billion) to the Pentagon’s request. The forces that made those changes have not vanished just because of a new name at the top of the subcommittee’s roster.

But the new administration may have new priorities, which offers a more likely explanation of changes in the upcoming fiscal 2022 budget, said Dov Zakheim, a former Pentagon comptroller during the George W. Bush administration.

Early indications point to a relatively flat budget for the Pentagon in 2022, he said, with the White House not wanting to pick a big fight over defense spending when it has other political priorities. Because of modest inflation and unavoidable increases to the personnel and operations and maintenance accounts, there will be less money to spend on other defense programs.

“In those sorts of circumstances, you’re not seeing major plus-ups for aircraft or ships or things of that sort,” Zakheim said. “You’ll see plus-ups for artificial intelligence, for cyber and quantum computing. But those aren’t massive, multizillion-dollar programs.”

Asked during a recent appearance on “Real Time with Bill Maher” why Congress didn’t cut funding for the F-35 and invest the savings in cybersecurity, Tester didn’t commit but said the question was “spot on.”

“We need to be prepared for the next war and not the last one,” he said.

Bring up Big Sky Country during a discussion of national security and you’re likely to get a recitation of the dying words from Sam Neill’s character, Capt. Vasily Borodin, in “The Hunt for Red October”: “I would have liked to have seen Montana.”

But in addition to its iconic scenery, Montana does have a lot of missile silos, and Adams and Zakheim agree that Tester’s SAC-D chairmanship may make it much tougher to get rid of the land-based portion of the nuclear triad.

“Tester has already made it clear he’s going to be a defender of modernizing the triad, and that means efforts to put ICBMs to bed as a relic of the Cold War are probably doomed when you’re talking about his chairmanship and a 50-50 split in the Senate,” said Adams.

Instead, debate will probably focus on whether to try to extend the life of aging Minuteman III missiles, or to try to speed up production of the ground-based strategic deterrent, the Pentagon’s program to replace its decades-old ICBMs, Zakheim said.

Tester will play a large role in that decision, and his ascension to chairman may spell defeat for those who argue the U.S. could get by with nuclear weapons launched only from submarines in the water and bombers in the air. McCollum has also come out as a proponent of modernization and says her priorities include improving health care for the troops and ending sexual assault in the military.

And just because they aren’t home to big defense interests doesn’t mean Minnesota and Montana will be left out in the cold when appropriators fund the Pentagon — especially now that earmarks are making a comeback in the House and quite possibly the Senate.

With the defense budget accounting for roughly half of the government’s discretionary spending, that gives them another avenue to send defense dollars home. It is, however, unlikely we’ll ever again see anyone like the late Pennsylvania Democrat John Murtha, who famously funneled defense money and jobs to his Johnstown district.

Still, lots of programs that might not appear on their face to be defense-related, like cancer research or pandemic prevention, will receive Pentagon funding, said Mackenzie Eaglen, a former Hill staffer who is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, where she specializes in defense budget and strategy.

“People find ways to make things defense-relevant,” she said. “Just because there aren’t huge bases or installations or major production lines of equipment doesn’t mean that the cardinal won’t be able to funnel large amounts of money to universities, small businesses or other consortia, and public-private partnerships with DOD.”

Andrew Clevenger covers defense for CQ Roll Call.