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Rand Paul: Why I Voted Against the Latest Defense Budget

It's a big-spending nightmare jam-packed with things that have nothing to do with the military. So why did the Senate rubber-stamp it?

Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) speaks during a press conference regarding an executive order President Donald Trump signed. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

Today, the Senate passed the latest National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) to authorize the programs and policies of the Department of Defense.

Our national defense is incredibly important; it’s mandated in the Constitution. It is arguably Congress’s primary constitutional responsibility.

I have great respect and honor for those who serve in uniform. In fact, I recently introduced a bill to give each soldier who served in the war on terror a $2,500 bonus and at the same time officially end the war in Afghanistan. Ending the war in Afghanistan would save us about $50 billion a year.

Unfortunately, the bill that passed today does not end any of our multitude of wars. It continues the status quo and throws more money around the world at conflicts we can’t even begin to fathom.

Before the Senate rubber-stamped that money, I urged it to take a step back and consider two things.

First, we need to ask ourselves whether borrowing billions of dollars, year after year, to fuel our appetite for more military spending is a wise policy.

Second, we need to look at how this bill has been loaded up to carry things only somewhat related, or not related at all, to national defense.

As I’ve reminded my colleagues often, Admiral Mullen, the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the national debt was our greatest national security threat. His exact wording was “[t]he most significant threat to our national security is our debt.”

This was in 2010. When he made that remark, our debt was about $13 trillion. It’s over $23 trillion now. We just keep borrowing, and there is no end in sight.

Under our new budget deal, we will be borrowing $2.75 billion every day next year, nearly $2 million every minute.

We spend more than the next seven largest militaries in the world combined.

Our Defense Department is so large that it took them a decade to even figure out how to audit themselves. Then they said that the audit itself would cost almost half a billion dollars. Last year, we arrived back at square one: after all that effort, we still couldn’t audit the Army, the Navy, the Marines, or the Air Force.

We spend so much money that the Department of Defense literally can’t keep track of it all. We don’t even have a great idea of how much, exactly, we’re wasting.

A few years ago, the Defense Business Board, which is a defense advisory panel of corporate executives that reports to the secretary of defense, suggested that the Defense Department could save $125 billion on administrative expenses.

According to news accounts, that report scared the Pentagon, so they buried it. Everyone tried to keep it away from Congress for fear that they might actually cut something—not that I would have been too worried about that.

We’re set to spend $738 billion on military spending this year, up $22 billion from last year. Our budget deal provides $740 billion for next year.

Over the past six years, military spending has risen over $120 billion.

We say we’re for accountability and efficiency and savings, yet we keep piling money on top. How can we demand better accounting and efficiency when budget increases are seemingly guaranteed every year?

And to be clear, I support national defense. Backing our service members is a worthy cause, and there are things in this bill I like.

I’m a cosponsor of a bill to eliminate the so-called “Widow’s Tax,” which I’ve argued is the right thing to do, and that we should find the money to pay for it. That’s in this bill.

I support returning the 101st Airborne at Fort Campbell to its full air assault capacity with the return of a Combat Aviation Brigade. That’s in this bill.

I support giving our service members a pay increase. That’s in this bill.

But I take issue when Congress adds other things that don’t have anything to do with our military.

This bill sanctions NATO allies and potentially American energy companies if they have any involvement with the Nord Stream 2 pipeline. That pipeline is basically done, yet we want to jeopardize our relationships with our allies over it anyway.

This bill drops more sanctions into the middle of the Syrian civil war, as well as funding for so-called “vetted” Syrian rebel groups. All this would do is prolong the Syrian conflict and with it the humanitarian suffering and displacement we’ve seen in the region. The Syrian civil war is largely over. I agree with President Trump that it’s time to come home.

Another problem with our insatiable appetite for more military spending is that it requires conservatives to make bad compromises. If you want $40 billion in new defense spending, then you have to give the other side $40 billion in new domestic spending. That’s the nature of today’s bipartisanship: you can have your money as long as we get our money.

The dirty little secret is that there is actually too much compromise in Washington. Republicans want more military money and Democrats want more welfare money. Every time they compromise, Congress chooses to spend and borrow more.

For example, this bill provides a new mandatory benefit program—paid parental leave for all federal employees starting next year. That will cost more than $3 billion over the next five years, and, of course, Congress failed to provide for any means to pay for it. In essence, Congress today is simply saying, “Add it to my tab! The deficit be damned.” Regardless of how you feel about the issue, this represents a better benefit than many working Americans enjoy, and it has nothing to do with national defense.

Conservatism is about more than supporting military spending at any cost. We have to do more to make the tough decisions that enable a strong national defense AND a balanced budget.

Many so-called “conservatives” will hail this bloated military spending, but in truth there is nothing fiscally conservative about borrowing money from China to pay for our armed forces.

In fact, I would argue that borrowing to buy more tanks or planes or to police the far corners of the earth actually damages our national security.

Some have charged that our military is hollowed out, exhausted from so many far-flung conflicts. They will argue that we must expand military spending to meet the mission.

Perhaps we should do the opposite. Perhaps it isn’t that our military budget is too small, but that our military mission is too large. I, for one, hope for a day when Congress rediscovers that our constitutional mandate is to defend America first and to only become involved in war as a last resort. And even then, America should only become involved in war when Congress has debated and done its constitutional duty to declare war.

Until that day, I will continue to argue that the only fiscally conservative, fiscally responsible course of action is to vote against expanding the military budget.

Rand Paul is a Republican senator from Kentucky.

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