Jan 4, 2022

Biden signs the NDAA.

Biden signs the NDAA.

He just signed off on $768 billion of annual defense spending.

I’m Isaac Saul, and this is Tangle: an independent, ad-free, subscriber-supported politics newsletter that summarizes the best arguments from across the political spectrum on the news of the day — then “my take.”

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Today's read: 12 minutes.

We take a look at the new national defense spending bill. Plus, a question about how many people want guns but can't get them, and an important story on a fresh batch of school closures.

A Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II fighter jet. Photo: Robert Sullivan
A Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II fighter jet. Photo: Robert Sullivan


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Quick hits.

  1. New York Attorney General Letitia James issued subpoenas for Donald Trump Jr. and Ivanka Trump as part of an investigation into the Trump Organization. (The subpoenas)
  2. Rep. Bobby Rush (D-IL) became the 24th House Democrat to announce he was retiring this cycle. (The announcement)
  3. Theranos founder Elizabeth Holmes was convicted on 4 of 11 fraud charges in a case related to her purported revolutionary blood testing system. (The charges)
  4. After a holiday backlog, the U.S. topped one million new recorded Covid-19 cases in 24 hours as the Omicron variant continues to spread. (The cases)
  5. After a crash involving six tractor trailers on snow-covered I-95 in Virginia, south of Washington D.C., hundreds of drivers have been stuck in both directions of the highway for as many as 15 hours. (The traffic)

Today's topic.

The National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). On December 27, President Biden signed the NDAA for fiscal year 2022 into law. The bill, which authorized $768.2 billion of spending in 2022, passed the House and Senate with overwhelming majorities (88-11 in the Senate, 363-70 in the House), with Republicans outnumbering Democrats in support in both chambers despite being in the minority. Each year, the NDAA is considered a "must-pass" bill, as it is one of the only pieces of annual legislation that never seems to fail. It has become law every year for six consecutive decades.

After hitting some speed bumps in negotiations over China and Russia policy, the 2022 NDAA authorizes a 5% increase in military spending, and $25 billion more than Biden initially requested. It includes a 2.7% pay increase for troops and civilian employees. $740 billion will go directly to the Pentagon. Here are some of the major items in the bill:

  • $28 billion toward nuclear weapons programs.
  • A change in the military justice system that removes authority from military commanders to prosecute sex offenders, instead tasking independent military lawyers with investigating sexual assault cases. It also makes sexual harassment a crime in the Uniform Code of Military Justice.
  • Establishment of a 16-member, multi-year independent Afghanistan War Commission to investigate what happened during and at the end of the war. There’s also a prohibition on the transfer of any Defense Department funds to the Taliban.
  • $7.1 billion to beef up the U.S. position against China in the Pacific Deterrence Initiative, including a statement of congressional support for the defense of Taiwan.
  • Directs the Department of Defense to put together reports on China's new technologies, security developments and military capabilities.
  • Authorizes $4 billion for the European Deterrence Initiative to dissuade Russia from aggression, including $300 million for the Ukraine Security Assistance Initiative.
  • Creates a new intelligence division dedicated to tracking unidentified flying objects that breach sensitive U.S. airspace.
  • Continues to prohibit the use of military funds to transfer Guantanamo Bay detainees to U.S. or foreign prisons unless certain conditions are met, something the Biden administration — which hopes to close the prison — had opposed.

What isn't in the bill:

  • Congress removed an amendment that would have required women ages 18 to 25 to register for the Selective Service (future drafts) alongside men.
  • Repeal of the two-decades-old war resolution that allowed the U.S. military invasion of Iraq, despite such a repeal passing the House and Senate Foreign Relations Committees earlier this year, as well as having support from the White House. The 2002 Iraq resolution was cited as recently as 2020 by President Trump as legal justification for the strike that killed Iranian General Qasem Soleimani.
  • The bill did not go as far as some Democratic senators wanted in reforming the military justice system; military commanders still retain the power to convene courts and create a pool of potential jurors in sexual assault cases, and also retained authority over prosecuting other serious crimes like murders and kidnapping.
  • Legislation to require companies from critical infrastructure industries like water, agriculture or financial services to report hacking and cyber incidents to the federal government. The language was stymied by divisions over whether to widen the spectrum of companies in the reporting requirement.

Below, we’ll take a look at some reactions from the right and left, then my take.

What the right is saying.

  • The right is generally supportive of the bill, arguing that it's necessary to counter China and Russia.
  • Some say the legislation didn't do enough to address rising inflationary pressures.
  • Others have criticized Congress for not reclaiming and clarifying its war powers.

The Wall Street Journal editorial board said the press "is focusing on cultural issues like tweaks to the military’s justice system and the defeated proposal to draft women."

"But the bigger story is that Congress delivered a bipartisan rebuke to the utterly unrealistic defense budget the Biden Administration released earlier this year," the board said. "President Biden in May proposed $715 billion for the Department of Defense in 2022. That was a 1.6% increase from 2021, an inflation-adjusted cut to America’s national security in a world of growing threats. The $740 billion NDAA passed by the House and likely headed to the President’s desk authorizes a 5.2% increase.

"The NDAA followed the White House proposal on military pay, authorizing a 2.7% increase for soldiers, sailors, airmen and other Pentagon employees. That means much of Congress’s $25 billion plus-up goes to more and better weaponry, especially for the Navy," the board added. "The House bill authorizes 13 new ships, up from the Biden budget’s request for eight. That includes three destroyers, compared to one sought by the Pentagon. The bill also invests $330 million in U.S. submarine-building capacity in the hopes of accelerating production to three attack subs per year... The 2022 authorization at least reflects a growing bipartisan acknowledgment of geopolitical reality. China and Russia are threatening shooting wars against their U.S.-aligned neighbors, and Iran is accelerating its bid for nuclear weapons, as international institutions flail and weaken."

In The National Review, John Rossomando said inflationary pressures are putting military readiness at risk.

"President Biden’s overspending put his own administration’s defense budgetary target out of whack because its $715 billion defense budget increased only 2.2 percent from the year before. The current declared inflation rate stands at 6.8 percent," he wrote. "The current NDAA is built around a 3 percent inflation rate. If the current inflation trend continues, Congress would need to more than double its $25 billion increase in a final appropriations deal to approximately $50 billion to keep the Pentagon’s buying power from eroding.

"Building ships, tanks, planes, drones, and the like requires purchasing raw materials — the prices of which increase along with the costs of living for civilian employees and military service personnel," he wrote. "The last two millennia have proven that overspending and inflation undermine military readiness. China and Russia are nipping at our heels and relishing the incompetence of our leaders on matters including monetary policy, spending, and the lack of technological leadership and coherent military strategy."

Meanwhile, Daniel DePetris said Congress blew another chance to reclaim its war powers, despite passing a 2,165 page bill with a number of national security priorities.

"What it doesn’t include, however, is any semblance of interest on Capitol Hill about addressing the war-powers elephant in the room — even though a growing number of lawmakers in both the House and the Senate realize the absurdity of keeping outdated war-powers resolutions on the books," he wrote. "Why did negotiators leave out the provision repealing the 2002 AUMF from the compromise defense bill? To argue that such a provision would be too controversial doesn’t pass the laugh test; the House passed repeal last June on a strong bipartisan vote, and the Senate Foreign Relations Committee advanced its own version in August. It’s not like President Biden is lukewarm to it either. The White House is on record supporting the resolution’s demise.

"Some lawmakers, like Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell, continue to make the case that the 2002 AUMF gives the U.S. legal cover for counterterrorism operations in Iraq. But this is a total misunderstanding of what this authorization does and doesn’t allow and suggests some of the most senior lawmakers haven’t even bothered to read the law," DePetris said. “Rather, the issue is that Congress as an institution appears to be completely incapable of mustering the courage to take the hard votes the American people expect them to take."

What the left is saying.

  • The left criticizes the amount of spending, noting that it greatly exceeds many provisions in the Build Back Better plan.
  • Even if you believe in increased military spending, some criticize where that money is going.
  • Many point to Republican hypocrisy on concerns about federal spending.

In Politico, Rev. Dr. William Barber II, Liz Theoharis, and Lindsay Koshgarian said the bill is proof we can afford Biden's Build Back Better agenda.

"Congress is choosing to spend more on guarding the world’s oil supply (at least $81 billion a year) than on the Build Back Better proposal for fighting climate change ($55 billion a year)," they wrote. "Congress is spending more on a single military contractor, Lockheed Martin ($75 billion last year), than on the Build Back Better proposal for preschool and child care ($40 billion a year)... And finally, Congress is choosing to spend twice as much on military bases in Germany ($7.5 billion last year) than on the Build Back Better proposal for hearing benefits for seniors ($3.5 billion a year).

"The Build Back Better Act would reduce poverty and bring economic security to millions of children and workers," they said. "It would make child care affordable, create good jobs and invest in clean energy. And it would raise revenue through taxes on the wealthy and corporations. Sky-high military spending, on the other hand, helps perpetuate a foreign policy that brought us 20 years of disastrous war while subsidizing military contractor CEOs and polluting the planet — all at tremendous taxpayer expense."

The Bloomberg editorial board said a "bigger defense budget is nothing to celebrate."

"As a budgeting exercise, the NDAA underscores Congress’s inability to set clear priorities," the board said. "Rather than free up resources to modernize the military’s capabilities, the legislation extends the lifespans of weapons systems that the Pentagon says it no longer needs. By failing to impose greater fiscal discipline, Congress risks weakening the U.S.’s ability to respond to future threats.

"On its face, the higher price tag (a 5% increase over last year) isn’t objectionable at a time when the U.S. faces challenges from adversaries such as China and Russia," the board wrote. "Yet rather than offset the new spending with savings from other programs — such as the $30 billion the U.S. had planned to spend in 2022 on the war in Afghanistan — Congress simply added to the Pentagon’s top line. While a spendthrift approach to defense spending is nothing new, an unwillingness to consider even modest limits makes little sense. The latest bill even indulges the full list of 'unfunded requirements' submitted by individual service branches and combatant commands — an annual wish list of additional weapons programs left out of the budget submitted by the department’s civilian leaders."

In The Washington Post, Paul Waldman said "the contrast with how we treated the far less costly bills Democrats have recently advocated, particularly the infrastructure law and the Build Back Better bill, could not be more stark."

"We spent endless TV hours and newspaper column inches debating the precise size of those bills and how they would be paid for," he wrote. "Is $3.5 trillion too much? How about $1.9 trillion? Would $1.7 trillion work? Should we increase taxes on the rich to fund them, and if not, where do we get the money? Nobody ever asks 'Where do we get the money?' when it comes to a defense bill. And that $768 billion? It’s a single year’s figure, unlike the 10-year totals that are used to describe infrastructure and BBB. If the defense budget were to rise 4 percent a year (about what it has over the past couple of decades), 10 years from now we’d spend $1.1 trillion a year; the 10-year total starting with this budget would be $9.2 trillion."

My take.

About a year ago, when I was managing Tangle alongside my full-time job as an editor and regularly working 14 or 15 hour days, I started doing something I had never done before: paying someone at the laundromat to wash and fold my laundry. It cost about $40 each time I did it, coming out to somewhere around $80 a month. Then and now, the idea of spending nearly $1,000 on laundry a year seems absurd to me. But when I didn't have to go back and forth to the laundromat, wait for an open washer or dryer, or fold all my laundry, I saved literal hours each time — not to mention being able to work for hours uninterrupted.

Eventually, I quit my ‘regular’ job to do Tangle full-time, freeing up more hours every day. But I haven't quit the wash and fold. It's too convenient, became part of my budget, and is now just baked into my lifestyle. The experience strikes me as an innocuous version of the absurdity that has become our military spending — and government spending more generally.

There are plenty of noble, bipartisan reasons to call for a cut to military spending. Many fit into catchy, gotcha questions like "Why do we fund bombs and warplanes when we can't properly fund education?" While the left still has an anti-war reputation, and there was indeed more Democratic opposition to this bill than Republican, plenty of populist right-wing cohorts — including (sometimes) the current leader of the Republican party — have rallied around anti-war calls over the last decade. On the other hand, plenty of Democrats still regularly and blindly sign off on more military spending each year, including — apparently — President Joe Biden. At the end of the day, no matter their rhetoric, it seems like Trump, Biden, Obama and every other recent president ends up signing off on more military spending.

Perhaps that is an indication of what they know and we don't — what threats they understand that we can't possibly. Either way, not that we needed it, the NDAA is really a good reminder that Congress is not shy about spending — no matter who you look at. What Congress wants to spend on is always the primary question. Conservatives have long made the case that the government's primary responsibility is protecting its citizens, and thus the military budget is a must-pass piece of legislation every year. There's a fascinating discussion there: What are the government's primary responsibilities? And is military defense number one? But I'm not sure you even have to answer that to understand the flaws in this spending deluge.

The best reason to reduce our military spending is that the Pentagon is extremely wasteful. An internal Pentagon study found that it could save $125 billion over five years — and that report was issued in 2015. Then the Pentagon tried to bury it. At the time, the study found the Pentagon was spending about a quarter of its $580 billion budget (now $740 billion) on accounting, human resources, logistics and property management.

The next best reason is that — even if you believe Russia and China are existential threats — the two combined are still spending less than half of what we spend on the military. That's because the vast majority of our spending is on preparing for operations we think will take place and maintaining hundreds of bases in dozens of countries. Unlike the debates we watch play out on immigration, health care, infrastructure or climate change, our politicians (and punditry) rarely engage in a debate about whether this is worth it for more than a 24 hour news cycle.

It's great to see some reforms in the military justice system, some focus on the Pacific region around China, and an investigation into the failed Afghanistan war. These are all things I support. Like DePetris, I was dismayed to see another failed attempt by Congress to reclaim its war powers, which continues the trend of power consolidation in the executive branch. But most disappointing is another year where we continue to add tens of billions of dollars to a budget rife with fraud and waste, yet have little public debate or pushback from within Congress about what that money is going toward or whether it's still necessary.

Your questions, answered.

Q: Do we know how many people want a gun but can't get one? And how has that changed over time?

— Min, Hadley, Massachusetts

Tangle: Kind of. Probably the best measurement for "people who want guns" is the number of people the FBI processes for gun background checks each year. On average, that number has been about 8.6 million in recent years. Over the last year or two, though, that number has surged. In 2020, it was 12.7 million.

However, those numbers are convoluted for a few reasons. First, they don't include 20 states that process some or all background checks themselves. There were a total of 39.3 million federal and state background checks in 2020, which is almost certainly closer to how many people want guns than 12.7 million. But each one of those is not a gun purchase: they include anyone who applies for a gun permit — not necessarily someone trying to buy a gun. For instance, I know of at least two friends in the last year who applied for a permit, got it, and then opted not to actually buy a firearm. The FBI and states also run background checks when checking on the status of a gun holder or run a single background check for someone purchasing multiple guns, all of which complicate the numbers.

In 2020, a little more than 300,000 people failed the background checks. 42% of those were because the person applying had a felony record. While 300,000 is a large number, it comes out to a failure rate of just 0.8%. That's actually smaller than the 3.4% of background checks the FBI fails to complete at all, which can lead to someone buying a gun despite not formally passing the background check. Overall, both the number of background check applications and the failure rate have gone up over the last five years.

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A story that matters.

More than 450,000 students have been thrust back into remote learning as the Omicron variant upended a return to school in many major cities. School districts in Newark, Atlanta, Milwaukee and Cleveland moved temporarily to remote learning. School closures — even for a week or two — can upend the lives of parents, especially those who struggle to find or afford child care. While many politicians continue to pledge that schools will remain open, there is a growing fear among educators and students that a wave of new closures is just around the corner. The New York Times has the story.


  • 464,500. The number of full-time contractors working for the Defense Department.
  • $98.9 million. The amount of money the defense industry spent lobbying Congress this year.
  • 750. The number of bases or installations the U.S. has globally.
  • 80. The number of countries where those bases or installations are located.
  • $17.5 billion. The amount of money Congress allocated for the Space Force next year.

Have a nice day.

Dan & Whit's general store in Norwich, Vermont was on the verge of closing, but when word got around that the store's owner Dan Fraser was about to shut things down, several of his customers stepped up to help keep it afloat. Now, a doctor can be found working at the register. A psychology professor might be sweeping the floor. "The fact that the community stepped up … sometimes it takes sort of a crisis, if you will, to appreciate what you have," Fraser said. So far, the community staffing plan is working out. CBS News has the story.

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