Republicans eye NDAA military spending bill to target ‘woke’ Pentagon policies

Conservatives have singled out a host of left-wing “woke” policies that they say have taken hold in the military under President Biden and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin.

Now, handed some real leverage in the ongoing 2024 spending negotiations on Capitol Hill, it’s time for congressional Republicans to decide which of those policies to aggressively target and which ones they can grit their teeth and live with.

From taxpayer-funded travel for abortions to critical race theory at military academies to the Pentagon’s promotion of electric-powered vehicles, the House GOP has produced a wish list of liberal social policies they’d like to eliminate or scale back through the defense budget process, now underway in both chambers of Congress. Many of the so-called woke policies would seemingly be red lines for Democrats, who control the Senate and White House, and theoretically could block any and all of the Republicans’ demands.

But recent history suggests that the GOP can get at least some of what it wants. Last year, President Biden and his Democratic allies in Congress acquiesced to one of Republicans’ highest-profile priorities: An elimination of the military’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate that was responsible for kicking out of the armed forces more than 8,000 troops who refused to get the shot.

Most Democrats initially stood firmly behind the policy but eventually signed on to the massive National Defense Authorization Act that scrapped it. The about-face came as public opinion seemed to turn against the mandate and as more and more service members were booted from the ranks despite the Pentagon battling its worst recruiting crisis in 50 years.

The NDAA, considered one of the few annual must-pass measures lawmakers consider, has become a policy battlefield for both parties, with measures that stand little chance of passing partisan muster on their own folded into a giant spending and policy package that even presidents are reluctant to veto.

Democrats have used the NDAA for their purposes as well — the measure that forced the Pentagon to strip the names of Confederate generals from military and installations around the country was a policy rider on the FY2021 NDAA that was passed over then-President Trump’s veto.  

Analysts say that history could repeat itself this year, at least to some degree. They say that it’s clear Republicans won’t get all of the demands they’ve made in spending documents produced by the House Appropriations and Armed Services committees. But this is likely the best opportunity they’ll have for at least another year.

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“They know they’re not going to get their entire bingo card and they’re going to have to probably compromise on some things. But they’re going to get something, and something is better than nothing,” said retired Army Gen. Tom Spoehr, now the director of the Center for National Defense at the conservative Heritage Foundation. 

Gen. Spoehr said it would be a mistake for Republicans to abandon their fight against woke military policies right now in the hopes that their party will recapture the Senate and White House in the 2024 elections.

“If you wait until 2025, you’ve just lost two years of people being upset in the military. You could have made some progress,” he said.

From Mr. Austin to the top commanders of each military service, Pentagon officials have pushed back hard against the idea that liberal policies are hurting America’s armed forces. Behind the scenes, some defense officials maintain that conservative Republicans in Congress are simply trying to score political points by rallying their base behind criticism of a “woke” military, when in reality there is no such thing.

Critics see it much differently, and they point to data that seems to back up their argument.

For example, a December 2022 survey by the Ronald Reagan Institute found that 50% of Americans cite “woke practices” as a key reason for their decreased confidence in the military. Critics also cite anecdotal reports of such policies hurting military recruiting, though such claims are more difficult to prove.

Window of opportunity

For Republicans, this year’s budget process certainly appears to be the most promising vehicle through which to force changes to Pentagon policies. And as a starting point, they’re looking for changes across the board.

Among many other things, the $826 billion defense budget bill put forward by the House Appropriations Committee would prohibit the use of taxpayer funds for gender-transition surgery; prohibit the use of taxpayer money to promote critical race theory; outlaw Pentagon spending for events “that bring discredit on the military,” such as the use of drag queens as military recruiters; eliminate the military’s deputy inspector general for diversity and inclusion and extremism in the military; and take a host of other steps to unwind what they say is the military’s dangerous move to the political and social left.

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Republicans have cast the bill as an effort to redirect the Defense Department back toward its underlying goals — such as preparing for a potential clash with communist China — and away from a host of left-leaning initiatives that have taken hold in recent years.

House Appropriations defense subcommittee chairman Rep. Ken Calvert said the bill directs the military to focus “on its mission — not culture wars.” 

“This bill rejects many of the Biden administration’s misguided funding proposals, such as climate change initiatives, far-left social policies, and shrinking the Navy,” the California Republican said earlier this month after the bill cleared the full Appropriations Committee.

The bill’s most ambitious goal is the reversal of a Pentagon policy that provides paid time off and travel reimbursement for female troops who must travel out of state to get abortions. Mr. Austin put that policy in place immediately after the Supreme Court’s reversal last year of its landmark Roe v. Wade ruling, which established a national right to abortion.

On the surface, it would appear Democrats would be willing to fight tooth and nail to maintain that policy given how deeply important the issue is to the party’s base. Their early stance is that the GOP-proposed bills are unacceptable.

“This bill contains the most extreme social policy riders I have ever seen in a defense appropriations bill. These riders make it almost impossible to gain bipartisan support,” Rep. Betty McCollum, Minnesota Democrat and her party’s ranking member on Mr. Calvert’s subcommittee, said earlier this month.

“Our service members make immense sacrifices, along with their families, on behalf of our nation and they deserve better from Congress,” she said. 

But specialists say it’s not entirely clear just how hard Democrats are willing to fight any of those specific policies, including the abortion provisions.

“It’s hard to imagine this new, generated so-called entitlement is something they’d go to the mat for. But maybe it’s taken on its own kind of standing” in Democratic party politics, Gen. Spoehr said.

Even if Democrats do take a hard-line position against Republican demands, Gen. Spoehr said the rapid death of the military’s COVID-19 vaccine policy is proof that there may be more room for negotiations than one may expect.

“I was one of those guys that said the COVID vaccine mandate is never going to go away. And then it went away,” he said.

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