House Dem in Charge of Military Budget Opposes Cuts Favored by Progressives

House Armed Services Committee chair Adam Smith (D-Wash.), a top recipient of PAC money from weapons makers, has called some Democrats "extremists" for wanting to reduce the Defense Department's $740.5 billion budget.

House Dem in Charge of Military Budget Opposes Cuts Favored by Progressives
House Armed Services Committee chairman Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.) questions witnesses during a hearing in the Rayburn House Office Building.

This post is authored by reporter Eoin Higgins.

Protecting the war machine is a bipartisan effort. Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.), the House Armed Services Committee chair, drew attention earlier this month for comments suggesting that people advocating for cutting military spending were extremists. 

“I don’t think that rational policy involves a 20 percent defense cut,” Smith said at an October 6 event at George Mason University. “There are extremists on the right and extremists on the left, and what I’m trying to do is say, ‘Let’s go for pragmatic problem solving.’ I don’t see extremism solving problems.”

But in an interview with Sludge, Smith made a distinction between differences of opinion about the military budget—which he said were reasonable discussions for the party to have—and extremism, which he defined as comments by his 2018 primary challenger Sarah Smith saying that the U.S. military was the greatest threat to peace in the world. 

“I want to be 100% clear, I don’t think that’s an extreme position,” Smith said of cutting the defense budget. “And I want us to have that conversation.”

In July, Smith was one of the 139 Democrats who voted against an amendment from Progressive Caucus Co-Chair Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Wis.) that would have cut the Pentagon’s 2021 budget by 10 percent. 

Smith’s reluctance to reduce military spending is putting him increasingly at odds with his party’s left flank—especially as defense military budgets under President Donald Trump have increased. There are now calls from a small but growing sector of the Democratic Party for a roll back on the bloated annual spending. Progressive leaders in the party from Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) to Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.) have demanded that the budget be reduced and for those funds to go instead into social programs, a demand with added urgency in the age of the coronavirus pandemic. 

A review of Smith’s campaign contributors suggests why the congressman is so resistant to cutting funding for the military. During the current 2019-20 cycle, Smith received $235,750 from defense industry PACs, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, more than from any other sector. He took in $232,200 in the 2018 cycle, $186,000 in both 2016 and 2014, and $175,000 in 2012. Weapons companies among Smith’s top-five career donors include Boeing ($163,450), Northrop Grumman ($150,250) and Raytheon Technologies ($117,000).  

The Armed Services Committee has jurisdiction over the Defense Department budget and is largely responsible for determining how much the military will spend on acquiring weapons and other goods and services from private defense companies.    

“It’s jarring to hear those seeking a return to Obama-era military spending being called extremists—not by Trump—but by Democratic leadership,” said Erik Sperling, executive director of Just Foreign Policy, a nonprofit that advocates for U.S. foreign policy to be based around diplomacy. “What’s truly extreme is politicians taking defense industry money and then granting hundreds of billions of dollars to those donors for weapons that do nothing to address our urgent national security threats like health and climate.”

Smith told Sludge that the defense contractor PAC donations were just part of doing business as a politician and that though he doesn’t like the current campaign finance system he’s bound by its norms. The congressman also claimed that the donations don’t sway his votes and that he’s lost some powerful backers over the years.

However, it’s hard to argue that the defense industry’s investment hasn’t paid off: Smith has been an outspoken supporter of the military-industrial complex. In 2012, he co-sponsored an amendment with GOP Rep. Mac Thornberry (Texas) to allow Pentagon propaganda to be disseminated across the U.S., a practice usually reserved for people in foreign countries and previously barred by law for domestic application. 

“It removes the protection for Americans,” a Pentagon official told Buzzfeed News at the time. “It removes oversight from the people who want to put out this information. There are no checks and balances. No one knows if the information is accurate, partially accurate, or entirely false.”

The measure passed the House easily on May 18, 2012 as part of the $642.5 billion annual defense budget. 

During the Obama administration, Smith said the U.S. should not pull out of Afghanistan, saying that comparisons to Vietnam were not warranted. In 2016, he was one of 16 Democrats who voted with Republicans to kill an amendment to prohibit the sale of cluster bombs to Saudi Arabia for use in their attacks in Yemen. The bombs, which indiscriminately spread small explosives among a wide area, had been used by the Saudi-led coalition for attacks in areas where Yemeni citizens were alleged to have been present. In December 2019, following negotiations with Senate Republicans, Smith agreed to a Defense authorization bill that did not call for the U.S. to end its support for the coalition’s military actions in Yemen, a concession that Kate Kizer of Win Without War said was “mind-blowingly bad and really unacceptable.” 

The House Armed Services Committee’s communications director Monica Matoush, in a statement to Sludge, said Smith has an eye on unnecessary spending.

“Chairman Smith has been highly critical of wasteful defense spending throughout his tenure in Congress,” Matoush said. “Having served on the Armed Services Committee for more than two decades, Chairman Smith has a deep understanding of the threats our country faces and the defense budget required to keep us safe.” 

But a view of spending that includes funding what’s needed to keep the public secure doesn’t appear to extend past defense. Even with a possible landslide election in the wings for Joe Biden and Democrats around the country that could give them control of both chambers of Congress, Smith said that Democrats should not think voters have given them any particular mandate. 

“Okay, we can win an election because people are appalled by Donald Trump, but that doesn’t mean that they’re endorsing us in any sort of huge, dramatic way,” said the congressman.

In comments to Sludge, Smith said that the diversity in political positions that comprise the upswell against Trump means that it’s hard to pin down a governing agenda. 

“You don’t build a coalition by trying to browbeat the rest of the coalition into doing what you want them to,” Smith said. 

The $740.5 billion Defense Department budget for 2021 is more than half of all federal discretionary spending, dwarfing the amounts the government spends on things like education, housing, and public health. 

Daniel Schuman, policy director of progressive advocacy group Demand Progress, told Sludge that Congress’ inflation of defense spending in the face of domestic hardships showed a mix-up in priorities. 

“Last year, the military got a 10% increase in funding, from $686 billion to $721 billion, and America was already spending more on defense than did China, Saudi Arabia, Russia, the United Kingdom, India, France, and Japan combined,” said Schuman. “How many Americans saw their pay go up 10 percent? People are struggling to pay their bills and the government is struggling with responding to COVID.”

“It seems like we—and Rep. Smith—could make a better choice than giving 50 cents on every dollar to the Pentagon, which used taxpayer money meant for masks and swabs to make jet engine parts and body armor,” Shuman added. “Maybe he should be focused on that.”

Sperling noted that Smith’s comments only serve to solidify a growing consensus among progressives that pushing for change will require battling both Republicans and Democrats. 

“This should be a wake-up call that whichever party is in power, Americans really will have to fight to take back their government from the corporate capture that Eisenhower feared,” said Sperling.

Read more from Sludge:

Hawkish Dem Sherman is Next in Line to Replace Engel as Foreign Affairs Chairman

Dems Voting Against Pentagon Cuts Got 3.4x More Money From the Defense Industry

Law Enforcement PACs Give Millions to the Politicians Who Set Their Budgets

The Members of Congress Who Profit From War

Top Democratic Recipient of Defense Industry Cash Is Silent on Iran