If Republican lawmakers take control of either the House or Senate following midterm elections, experts expect bigger defense budgets, more debate over foreign military aid and more fighting about how “woke” military issues affect national security.
House Republicans in September unveiled their pre-election “Commitment to America” outlining a host of policy priorities and changes for if they win control of the chamber, including a promise to “support our troops” and “invest in an efficient, effective military.” Leadership hasn’t specified much of what that would entail, but outside observers say the public could see changes in Congress’ approach quickly if the party wins in November.
“We expect that a new Republican majority would execute an aggressive oversight agenda,” said Michele Pearce, a former Republican staff lead and counsel for the House Armed Services Committee who now works for Covington & Burling. “We expect both House and Senate defense committees to focus on the withdrawal of Afghanistan, supply chain risks, and defense topline funding.”
Unlike some past election cycles, foreign policy and national security are not at the forefront of this year’s midterm elections.
A recent Pew Research Center poll of more than 5,000 registered voters found 54% said those issues are “very important” in their candidate selection this November, just 12th on the list of top concerns. The economy (79%), democratic stability (70%) and education (64%) led the list.
But a Republican takeover of either congressional chamber will have wide-ranging impacts on the military, even if candidates on the campaign trail aren’t highlighting them now.
“You’re going to see [House Armed Services Committee] Republicans focused on boosting the U.S. military’s lethality and capability,” a senior Republican congressional aide said. “Congress has been focused on what is needed to deter China — right now, the top of the list includes munitions replenishment, military modernization and fixing recruitment issues.”
The defense budget
The defense budget is likely to rise again in fiscal 2024, but just how much depends on how much control Republicans have in next year’s appropriations debates.
The fiscal 2023 defense budget still has not yet been finalized, but lawmakers are nearing agreement on a plan to spend around $815 billion on military programs, equipment and personnel. That’s about 9% above fiscal 2022 spending levels, and 4% more than the White House requested for defense last spring.
Much of that increase has to do with higher inflation costs not accounted for in the original administration request.
But it also reflects success by minority Republican lawmakers in arguing for a sizable annual boost to the Pentagon. Moderate Democrats have largely sided with them in recent budget debates, rejecting calls from progressives to cut defense spending in favor of other domestic priorities.
“If Republicans win, they’ll try and push for even more,” said Valerie Shen, vice president for the national security program at Third Way, a left-leaning think tank. “And they’ll probably be successful, given the recent history.”
Senate Armed Services ranking member Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., and others in his caucus, have pushed for an annual 5% increase above inflation in defense spending as a floor for future budget packages. For fiscal 2023, that would have meant a military appropriations boost of somewhere around 13%.
Whether they can get that sort of boost — as they did with a Republican-controlled House and Senate under the last Republican president, Donald Trump — will depend on how well election night goes for them.
“Defense spending is part of a federal budget, and it will inevitably get tied up in debates over non-defense discretionary spending, taxation, the federal debt and entitlement spending,” said Byron Callan, managing director at the investment research firm Capital Alpha Partners.
“The idea that somehow you’re going to open the floodgates of defense spending with Republicans in control of the House or the Senate, that’s not a bet that I would take.”
But Seamus Daniels, a fellow for defense budget analysis at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said he thinks it is a possibility — but only if Republicans win control of both chambers.
“If Republicans only take one chamber in the midterm elections, we may just see more parity,” he said
“And if we have a partisan divide in Congress and with the White House, that can only lead to more gridlock and longer continuing resolutions, which is not what the Defense Department wants,” Daniels added. “The fear is that even as [Republicans] push for bigger defense budgets, those fights may ultimately lead to longer delays in getting [a budget] for defense done.”
The ‘woke’ military
Republican lawmakers have made issues of diversity, gender equity and “cancel culture” a fixture of the 2022 campaign trail. And those same issues have crept into defense policy hearings over the last year, leading to some tense fights between conservative lawmakers and Pentagon leaders.
Outside observers expect that to become even more heated if Republicans control the gavel of either armed services committee next year.
“I don’t think they can be successful at changing many of these policies in any significant way, because the military brass has been open to these social policies,” Shen said. “But I expect public statements and hearings and letters and whatnot, to keep the issues at the front.”
In recent weeks, key members of the House Armed Services Committee have questioned military policies on abortion access and the teaching of critical race theory issues.
A senior Republican aide said House Armed Services ranking member Mike Rogers, R-Ala., is already planning “questions regarding DoD’s vaccine mandate and how it’s affected readiness.”
Party members have also strongly criticized efforts in 2021 by the Pentagon and White House to investigate extremism in the ranks, questioning whether the real goal was to demonize some conservative and religious beliefs.
Thomas Spoehr, director of the conservative Heritage Foundation’s Center for National Defense, wrote in an open commentary last month that “wokeness in the military has become ingrained” and said lawmakers need to rein in the time and resources spent on the issues.
But Pentagon leaders have pushed back, saying the policies are geared toward improving morale and readiness, not pushing a social agenda.
As part of their planned oversight work, House Republicans have promised intense investigations into the August 2021 withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan if they gain control of the chamber next year.
Last week, House Armed Services Committee member Rep. Mike Waltz, R-Fla., sent a letter to Pentagon leaders blasting them for a months-long overdue briefing on how Afghan intelligence was secured and archived in the wake of the withdrawal, and accusing leaders of trying to ignore the problems still there.
“The intelligence is clear: Al-Qaeda is re-forming in Afghanistan,” he wrote. “We will once again be facing the prospect of terrorist attacks on American interests abroad and possibly the homeland itself.”
Unlike Democratic lawmakers — who thus far have focused much of their oversight on 20 years of missteps in Afghanistan — Republican leaders have called for a closer look at what they call the rushed withdrawal from the country, including potentially ignored signs that the Biden administration’s plans imperiled U.S. service members’ lives.
In August, Rogers said officials involved in the chaotic drawdown “must be held accountable for their actions,” adding that so far they have not.
Congressional hearings in his committee, the House Foreign Affairs Committee and others could begin as early as February, before the annual defense budget process begins.
The question as to whether the Biden administration can continue sending billions in aid to support Ukraine against Russia’s invasion may also hinge on the midterm results, as Republicans are dealing with a split on the issue between Trump-style populists and establishment party members.
McCarthy said earlier this month the House would be less likely to pass generous Ukraine aid packages should his party win the November elections.
“People are going to be sitting in a recession, and they’re not going to write a blank check to Ukraine,” McCarthy told Punchbowl News. “Ukraine is important, but at the same time it can’t be the only thing they do, and it can’t be a blank check.”
A Morning Consult poll released October 24 found that only 29% of Republicans believe the U.S. has a responsibility to protect and defend Ukraine against Russia, versus 56% of Democrats. Overall, only 42% of U.S. voters believe that Washington should help Ukraine.
Nonetheless, Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., has vowed that a Republican-held Senate would go further than the Biden administration on Ukraine aid, noting it would “focus its oversight on ensuring timely delivery of needed weapons and greater allied assistance to Ukraine.”
China is the rare issue where there seems to be little conflict between Republicans and Democrats. Still, the issue is likely to be highlighted more by Republican lawmakers if they control congressional debate next year.
The House GOP’s “Commitment to America” vows that Republicans will establish a Select Committee on China. Republicans established their China taskforce early in 2020 after Democrats refused to participate, accusing former president Donald Trump of scapegoating Beijing for his mishandling of the COVID-19 pandemic.
While the current House China Task Force remains an entirely partisan Republican initiative for now, it has advanced hundreds of proposals — many of which enjoy robust bipartisan support. The task force has worked closely with Taiwan’s diplomatic office and pushed to provide Taipei with more U.S. weapons at a faster pace.
That also includes a congressional bipartisan consensus on nuclear modernization as China races to do the same.
“You’ve also seen Republicans make nuclear modernization a priority — as adversaries like Russia and North Korea threaten the use of nuclear weapons and as China has rapidly increased their nuclear arsenal,” said the senior Republican aide.
Centrist Democrats have joined Republicans in the draft text of the fiscal 2023 National Defense Authorization Act program to block the Biden administration from defunding the sea-launched cruise missile nuclear development program.
The House China task force also proposed subsidies and tax incentives to persuade manufacturers to develop semiconductors in the U.S. instead of China and other Asian countries as part of a broader effort to shore up the U.S. defense industrial base. Congress ultimately passed $52 billion worth of these subsidies into law in July.
Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.
Bryant Harris is the Congress reporter for Defense News. He has covered U.S. foreign policy, national security, international affairs and politics in Washington since 2014. He has also written for Foreign Policy, Al-Monitor, Al Jazeera English and IPS News.