WASHINGTON — Even in the face of a soaring national debt, Congress has approved big hikes in military spending.
Rep. Don Bacon, a Republican, talks frequently about his work to secure those increases, saying they are necessary to return the nation’s armed services to a healthy footing. His Democratic challenger Kara Eastman, however, has been critical of how those dollars are allocated.
Military policy can have a big impact on the Omaha-based 2nd Congressional District, given the proximity of Offutt Air Force Base, an economic driver for the area.
And that means the approaches of Bacon and Eastman could influence the outcome of their contest — one that will help decide which party controls the House next year.
Both candidates say the military should have sufficient resources to keep America safe, protect the country’s interests around the globe and care for its veterans.
But the two have different opinions about the way Congress has been directing military spending and about Bacon’s performance as an advocate on behalf of Offutt and the planes assigned to it.
With Bacon’s support, Congress approved a budget deal earlier this year that gave the Pentagon the largest budget it’s ever seen — $700 billion. That was $94 billion more than the previous year, a 15.5 percent jump.
That’s the biggest year-over-year windfall since the budget soared by 26.6 percent, from $345 billion in 2002 to $437 billion the year after, when the nation was fighting in Afghanistan, invading Iraq and expanding national defense after the 9/11 attacks.
Bacon, a retired Air Force brigadier general who served previously as the Offutt commander, talks about the arc of military spending over the years.
After the fall of the Soviet Union, the 1990s saw a bipartisan and understandable backing off military funding — the so-called “peace dividend.”
After the 9/11 terrorist attacks, military spending shot up again but much of that was focused on counterinsurgency tools such as unmanned aircraft and armored personnel carriers.
Bacon says the United States fell behind in its ability to counter threats from adversaries such as Russia and China, and recent defense bills have helped fill the gaps.
Eastman, a nonprofit executive and member of the Metropolitan Community College board, doesn’t object to the recent increases on their own but suggested that lawmakers haven’t put the money to the best use.
“There’s too much waste with members of Congress protecting their pet projects that the military doesn’t even want or need,” Eastman said.
Specifically, she cited Congress’ push to fund more F-35s than the Pentagon requested.
Bacon said that criticism is off target in part because the Pentagon’s request was based on budget constraints that Congress subsequently lifted.
Congress didn’t increase the ultimate total number of planes, Bacon said, but rather sped up their production. And it’s important to get those F-35s into service quickly, he said, because they represent the only planes that can effectively penetrate Russian and Chinese air defenses.
“You cannot get in there with an F-15 or an F-16. You’ll get shot down 200 miles away from your target,” Bacon said. “The F-35 gives you that stealth capability to get in there and get the job done.”
Eastman said the United States should be spending on its military to retain its place in the world, to ensure that the country is safe and its allies protected. But she questioned whether there’s enough thought behind the increases Bacon has supported.
“We can’t just say we’re going to increase military spending without a strategy” and a plan for where the money comes from, she said.
Eastman has run in large part on advocating a Medicare-for-all approach to health care. She said she faces questions from critics on how health care spending will be paid for, but few question military spending.
She pointed to news reports about expensive toilet seat covers as evidence that military dollars could be better sent. Military officials have said they’ve addressed the situation with those pricey toilet parts.
Bacon defended the legislation that he’s worked on as a member of the House Armed Services Committee and noted that the bills have passed with the support of most Democrats.
He said he’ll work to sustain that funding in the future given the many missions assigned to the military — from Afghanistan to North Korea, from cyberwarfare to nuclear deterrence.
“The Russians are an adversary and a threat, and I believe in deterrence,” Bacon said. “I want to make sure Putin knows he can’t get away with a surprise attack on us.”
Eastman repeatedly returned to the need to care for those serving in uniform, talking about the need for more dental coverage for veterans.
“We have the best military in the world but we have to really be careful and think through how we’re treating the people who dedicate their lives to serving,” she said.
Bacon pointed to recent military pay raises. The 2018 military pay raise of 2.4 percent is the largest since 2010.
And he said it’s good to have someone with his military background in Congress — something that is less common these days than in the past. He noted that he’s twice served on the conference committee charged with reconciling differences between House and Senate versions of the annual defense policy bill.
Bacon touted getting seven bills included in the final package, including one to guarantee military base privileges to Gold Star families. He joined President Donald Trump for the signing of the bill Aug. 13 at Fort Drum in New York.
The two candidates offer different assessments of Bacon’s role in protecting Offutt and its planes.
Bacon touts his effort to secure more than $600 million for replacement and upgrades to Offutt’s reconnaissance jets. That includes the purchase and outfitting of two planes to watch over areas of Russia as part of the Open Skies Treaty, replacing a couple of OC-135 jets built in 1961.
But his initial attempt to get the planes into the House version of the defense bill fell short.
Bacon said he worked with Nebraska’s Sen. Deb Fischer, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, to get the planes into the final version that went to the president’s desk.
Eastman said Bacon should have gotten the planes into the initial House bill.
Bacon said he ran into opposition because some of his fellow Republicans — including the House committee chairman — don’t like the Open Skies Treaty itself, so they opposed money for the planes at first.
“We softened him up and we won the day,” Bacon said.
Both Bacon and Eastman said they are concerned about the budget deficit. The Congressional Budget Office reported this month that the federal deficit jumped 20 percent in the first 10 months of the 2018 fiscal year to $682 billion.
Eastman said the deficit is why it’s important to make sure every penny is accounted for and used wisely.
Bacon said he was particularly dismayed that Democrats required that the military spending boost be paired with increases in other areas. But he said the alternative to that deal would have been even worse — yet another year of budget constraints on the Pentagon that would have hurt the military.
Bacon also said defense spending is relatively low both as a percentage of the overall economy and as a percentage of the federal budget. Given that the majority of the budget goes to mandatory spending such as Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security, the military is not the main driver of the deficit, he said.
Neither Eastman nor Bacon endorsed the idea of pulling back on the U.S. military’s footprint around the globe, although Eastman said she’d like to see more funding for the State Department and more emphasis on diplomacy.
And she questioned the future of the U.S. role in Afghanistan.
“If we’re going to deploy more military into some of these places like Afghanistan, well what’s the strategy, what’s our exit strategy in particular?”
Bacon said he thinks the country is safer when it has a close alliance with its European and Far East allies.
“When America pulls back and becomes isolationist I think that just will prompt Russia or China to be more aggressive in their regions,” he said.
This report includes material from the Associated Press and the Hill.