Jul 20, 2023

Today's debate: Republicans' controversial military bill.

Today's debate: Republicans' controversial military bill.
Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin has been defending the military from accusations it is distracted by progressive ideology. Image: Department of Defen

Plus, a blooper reel, a correction, and a reader question.

I’m Isaac Saul, and this is Tangle: an independent, nonpartisan, 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're covering the defense bill Republicans just passed. Plus, a blooper reel, a correction, a poll, and a chance to get tomorrow's Friday edition.


Sometimes in life, things come in bunches. That's why we have expressions like "when it rains, it pours." I've also noticed it with Tangle: We'll go months without corrections, then get more than one in the same week. Today, we're going back-to-back: In a quick hit yesterday, we noted that a new six-week abortion ban in Iowa had been put on hold by a federal judge. As three eagle-eyed readers noted, it was a state judge who temporarily blocked the bill.

This is our 87th correction in Tangle's 208-week history and our first since... yesterday. We track corrections and place them at the top of the newsletter in an effort to maximize transparency with readers.


Over the past week, we've been using "Today's debate" in the subject line of our emails. Our idea was to try to make our newsletters stick out a bit in your inbox. What did you think? Let us know by taking the poll in today's "The extras" section. Note: We have polls every day in "The extras" section!


A new survey recently came out showing trust in media is at an another all-time low. And it comes at a moment when studies are also suggesting media is only getting more partisan. This felt like an opportunity to do some navel-gazing, so in tomorrow's subscribers-only Friday edition, I'm going to share my thoughts — based on my four years of producing Tangle — on how news outlets can build back trust.

Quick hits.

  1. The House Oversight Committee heard testimony from two IRS whistleblowers on the Justice Department's alleged mishandling of the Hunter Biden investigation. (The testimony)
  2. Wesleyan University announced that it will end legacy admissions, the practice of favoring relatives of alumni for acceptance. (The decision)
  3. Russian drones and missiles struck grain facilities in the Ukrainian port city of Odessa. An estimated 60,000 tons of grain were lost just days after Russia pulled out of a grain exports deal. (The strikes)
  4. The Biden administration issued a memo seeking to bar federal funding for the Wuhan Institute of Virology after it failed to comply with information requests. (The funding)
  5. A federal judge denied former President Trump a new trial in the E. Jean Carroll case. (The case)

Today's topic.

Republicans’ NDAA bill. On Friday, House Republicans passed a sweeping defense bill called the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). NDAAs are annual bills whose primary function is to fund national defense programs, and they typically pass with bipartisan support. The bill's price tag this year came to $886 billion, which included funds for a 5.2% pay increase for service members, combat ships and drones, new barracks, a new Space National Guard, a new Special Inspector General for Ukraine security assistance, an additional $300 million of security assistance for Ukraine, and $600 million for security-related threats in the Indo-Pacific region.

However, controversy over the bill increased after it was heavily amended by conservatives in the House to include a few hot-button social issues like abortion policy; health care for transgender soldiers; and diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) programs. Those amendments resulted in an unusual party-line vote, with the bill passing 219 to 210. Four Democrats voted with Republicans in favor, while four GOP members voted against. The Senate is expected to amend the bill next week.

Included in the House amendments is the elimination of diversity, equity, and inclusion programs and staff in the Department of Defense. Another amendment prohibits the secretary of defense from paying for or reimbursing expenses related to abortion services. Another bars a healthcare program for service members from covering hormone treatments or gender transition surgeries for transgender individuals. Transgender troops have been able to serve openly in the military since 2021, and there are now an estimated 15,000 transgender servicemembers.

Further, Rep. Lauren Boebert (R-CO) was able to include an amendment to block military schools from purchasing or having "pornographic and radical gender ideology books." Conversely, an amendment from Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA) to ban cluster munitions from being sold or transferred to Ukraine failed 147-276.

The four Republicans voting against the NDAA were Reps. Andy Biggs (R-AZ), Ken Buck (R-CO), Eli Crane (R-AZ), and Thomas Massie (R-KY). The four Democratic votes for the bill came from Reps. Jared Golden (D-ME), Donald Davis (D-NC), Gabriel Vasquez (D-NM), and Marie Gluesenkamp Perez (D-WA).

House Freedom Caucus members celebrated the bill as a victory, saying it would allow the military to focus on defense rather than progressive social policy distractions. House Speaker Kevin McCarthy took his own victory lap after keeping Republicans unified on the vote.

Democrats criticized the bill, saying Republicans have attached their own divisive culture war agenda to a critical defense spending measure.

Now, the bill heads to the Senate, where it will be reworked and amended once again. McCarthy will face a whole new set of challenges when the NDAA goes back to the House to be finalized later this year.

Today, we're going to take a look at some reactions from the right and left, then my take.

What the right is saying.

  • Many on the right support the amendments, arguing that McCarthy and House Republicans both notched another victory.
  • Some say funding for DEI initiatives has no place in the military and no connection to military readiness.
  • Others argue that most Americans agree the military does not need DEI programs.

The New York Post editorial board celebrated the bill, saying McCarthy "scored another victory."

“One provision eliminates Diversity, Equity & Inclusion programs and staff within the Defense Department. This is absolutely non-negotiable. America’s warfighting capacities have been severely dented by massive failures to meet recruitment goals, largely driven by the Pentagon’s turn to wokism. Indeed, it’s a great mystery why the government agency tasked with keeping America safe and strong should waste a single cent on DEI — it’s hard to think of a job field where merit and ability matter more.”

“Another provision stops health care coverage under a service member program for hormone treatments and gender-confirmation surgeries. Whatever your view of trans treatments, there’s zero reason for the federal government to fund them with taxpayer dollars. That goes for the rule blocking payment or reimbursement for expenses around abortions, too. Why should taxpayers (many of whom morally object to abortion) fund that? There’s also an amendment to keep books like ‘Genderqueer’ — a pornographic cartoon that progressives want children to read, for some reason — out of military school libraries. What role does such lit play in national defense?”

In National Review, Rich Lowry said the military "doesn't need DEI."

“The U.S. military has been a model for decades of how to build a racially diverse institution that is united by a common purpose and standards. That doesn’t mean it is perfect — nothing is — but it was notably diverse long before anyone thought it needed DEI training,” Lowry said. "Thankfully, by its standards, the Pentagon doesn’t spend much on DEI," which is a "scammy fad that has ballooned into a more than $3 billion industry even though there’s no solid evidence that it works, and it may well make things worse."

“At the very least, DEI is another administrative burden. A recent report on the fighting culture of the U.S. Navy prepared at the direction of Senator Tom Cotton and several Republican congressmen noted that 'non-combat curricula consume Navy resources, clog inboxes, create administrative quagmires, and monopolize precious training time.' At worst, it is injecting a poisonous ideology into a fighting force that needs to look past racial and other divisions and needs to believe in this country’s worth."

In The Federalist, Dominick Sansone said Republicans should reject Democrats' culture war if they want praise.

"Republicans such as Reps. Ronny Jackson of Texas, Matt Gaetz of Florida, and Scott Perry of Pennsylvania argued that the issues around abortion and transgenderism make no sense in terms of finances or force readiness," Sansone said. "The leftist response to what seems like common sense for most of the country — and indeed, would have been acknowledged as such by Democrats a mere 10 years ago — reveals the unbridgeable ideological chasm that currently separates the two sides."

"For those on the right, that we are even debating the notion that the military should fund abortion or genital mutilation surgeries for servicemembers — let alone actively attempt to inculcate them in the tenets of so-called ‘diversity, equity, and inclusion’ — is the sign of a sick and diseased body politic." Additionally, "the point of faith in diversity as our greatest strength allows those who have no conception of combat to argue that less of it will logically weaken our fighting force." Biden is unlikely to accept the bill as-is, and most Republicans will probably fold on the final passage. But "no meaningful change" will happen unless Republicans can force through more than symbolic wins.

What the left is saying.

  • Many on the left object to these amendments, arguing that they're symbolic of Republican bigotry and short-sightedness.
  • Some suggest Republicans are pro-military until it includes women or transgender servicemembers.
  • Others say things are getting more and more awkward for Speaker McCarthy.

The Fresno Bee editorial board said Republicans love to "wrap themselves in the flag and proclaim their patriotism.”

"But pay travel costs for a female sergeant in the Army with a pregnancy that, for medical reasons, must be ended and who must travel to a state where abortions are performed? Why, that’s an unacceptable use of taxpayer dollars, say these same Republicans. Support diversity efforts? That is nothing but ‘wokeism,’ say conservatives. And don’t even bring up Pentagon support for helping service members with gender transition," the board said. These members argue that the government shouldn't be paying for abortions, but "time off for needed medical services, plus gas and motel money, is not paying for abortions."

"Recruiting has become difficult for the military... So it is understandable that the Pentagon would include diversity efforts in its outreach. If recruits see people like them in the military, chances are good that more Americans will be attracted to join," the board said. "When servicewomen have to go out of state for medical care, ‘every defense possible’ is just an empty talking point. When barriers to diversity are built into a military spending bill that, for 60 years, has been a solid bipartisan measure, that is not helping the Pentagon with recruitment. And prohibiting the military from offering health coverage for gender transition surgeries, as the GOP’s bill does, further alienates soldiers, sailors and airmen seeking such help."

In USA Today, Rex Huppke said the Republican party is all about hate and fear.

“If you want to know what the Republican Party is all about, what the party formerly devoted to national security and law and order presently stands for, give a listen to one of its highest-ranking members sending a message to the military,” Huppke said. “‘Stop using taxpayer money to do their own wokeism,’ House Speaker Kevin McCarthy said Friday after passage of a Defense bill Republicans loaded up with culture-war-nonsense amendments. ‘A military cannot defend themselves if you train them in woke. We don't want Disneyland to train our military.’ A majority of Americans would hear or read that and ask: ‘Is that English? What on earth is that guy going on about?’”

“The more extreme elements of the party demanded amendments that do away with: funding for diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) programs in the military; a policy that helps women in the military travel out of state to get reproductive health services, including abortion, if they’re based in a state that has banned such services; and specialized health care for transgender soldiers or family members,” Huppke wrote. “There’s a reason Republican lawmakers and presidential candidates want their voters to see them fighting the promotion of diversity, equity and inclusion, women’s access to reproductive health care and transgender rights in the military and everywhere else. These things are seen as threats. Not as rights, not as science-backed medical needs, not as proven steps to create stronger, smarter workforces or more cohesive military units. Just threats.”

In The New York Times, Michelle Cottle said it's getting really awkward for Speaker McCarthy.

"Some days, Speaker Kevin McCarthy must look out over his House conference in awe and think: Are you maniacs trying to lose us the majority?" Cottle wrote. "Thursday may well have been one of those days, as hard-right crusaders larded up the National Defense Authorization Act with divisive, culture-warring amendments taking aim at abortion access, transgender medical care and diversity training." The odds of this bill becoming law are "less than zero," but "House conservatives aren’t aiming to make serious policy gains here."

"This may play well in deep-MAGA districts but not so much in battleground areas. Those are, admittedly, increasingly rare," Cottle said. "But with a majority this scrawny, House conservatives are playing with fire. All Democrats need to do is flip a handful of seats to snatch the gavel from Mr. McCarthy’s hand. They could, say, claw back some of the ground unexpectedly lost to Republicans in New York in last year’s midterms (starting with George Santos’s district). And they could pick up a seat or two thanks to the recent Supreme Court ruling on the Voting Rights Act that may lead to various Southern states redrawing their congressional districts to address sketchy gerrymandering."

My take.

Reminder: "My take" is a section where I give myself space to share my own personal opinion. If you have feedback, criticism, or compliments, don't unsubscribe. Write in by replying to this email, or leave a comment.

  • I understand why Republicans want to fight DEI training; and there really isn't much evidence it is worth spending money on.
  • That being said, the amendments related to abortion and transgender are harder to defend.
  • As a general default, we should be offering our soldiers the best perks and health care we can.

There's little doubt these amendments are going to be scrapped, so as a matter of importance this version of the NDAA doesn't hold much weight. It won't become law as long as President Biden is in office.

But the policy debate here does seem worth having — not just because Republicans managed to pass this bill out of the House, but because in the next few years they very well could have the numbers in the Senate and a president in the White House who would make these amendments law.

I'm actually sympathetic to the position that diversity, equity, and inclusion funding might not be something that's worth the military's money. It's not so much that there is a preponderance of evidence that DEI training makes racial tensions at organizations worse; it's that there is very little evidence it actually makes them better. Anecdotally, having participated in a few of these employer trainings myself, I can't say I'm surprised. The trainings vary widely in content, quality, and helpfulness, and some have been shown to create more animosity and negative backlash than anything else. 

Now, does this mean we should simply scrap every employee in the military who works in programs meant to make soldiers feel more welcome? I'm less convinced. But skepticism of DEI programs more broadly, and objections to dumping hundreds of millions of dollars into them (as the military has) is a totally reasonable position to me. Still, Congress should be careful not to overstep here. Having representatives so confidently remove something that the Pentagon says is in its best interest seems to undermine the authority of our military leaders.

When it comes to things like abortion or health care for transgender soldiers, my position is consistent: The government should have the most limited role possible. For some, that means the government should have no role in spending any money supporting services related to abortion or something like hormone therapy. But to me, it means the government should stay out of the way and let these decisions be made by doctors, families, and individuals. It's a question of freedom. That’s at the root of why I oppose strict government bans on abortion — because it limits the freedom of women to make decisions that can be matters of life and death without government obstruction. 

In this case, I think it is hardest to defend the abortion amendment, which would bar the Secretary of Defense "from paying for or reimbursing expenses relating to abortion services." As we covered earlier this week, the Pentagon currently grants troops leave and funds to travel for reproductive health care outside the states where they are stationed, including for abortions or fertility treatments. This bill provides a reasonable way for Republicans to change that policy, so at least they are not going the route Sen. Tommy Tuberville has gone by obstructing military appointments.

But I still think they are wrong.

Fundamentally, everyone serving in the military should have the best health care our government can offer. That includes women and transgender people. Great health care is exactly the kind of perk that would attract more recruits, and it is exactly the kind of thing that keeps current troops healthy, active, and able to serve.

Even if you are opposed to abortion on religious or fundamental pro-life grounds, there are going to be women in the military who face dangerous pregnancies and should have access to abortion services. Without the military allowing women to take leave or covering some travel expenses, that simply isn’t going to happen for any of the soldiers stationed in states with abortion bans. Similarly, there are going to be transgender troops — adults wanting to serve our country — who need hormone therapy or certain health care services to be at their best. Given that there is broad support among Americans to allow transgender people to serve openly in the military, attempting to remove this kind of health care from whomever of the estimated 15,000 transgender and 230,000 women servicemembers will be impacted makes no sense to me.

While most people’s opinions on abortion aren’t going to be changed in the debate over this spending bill, I do think, for now, Republicans are winning the messaging battle. "American tax dollars shouldn't go to abortions and sex reassignment surgery" is a powerful and simple message that will resonate for roughly half the country. Democrats’ retort that “this is going to hurt military readiness” is less convincing on its face, and easy to mock, too. 

After thinking about it for more than a few minutes, though, I think the better argument is this: If someone is willing to risk life and limb for our country, we should reciprocate their sacrifice by offering them the best health care possible. 

Let’s just use abortion services as an example. Even if you are pro-life, the simple reality is that for the roughly 230,000 members of the military who are women, the best health care possible would ensure unencumbered access to all the care our federal government legally provides. Amendments like this threaten that access, and in the long term it’s not unreasonable to think that would end up hurting military enlistment, which is already floundering. Not only would it mean servicemembers needing health care for a dangerous pregnancy wouldn’t be able to get one, but that any potential recruit who wants access to those services will end up looking for work elsewhere. And that’s to say nothing of the many impacted who are already enlisted.

Your questions, answered.

Q: I don’t agree with Mr. Carr [in his piece arguing that homelessness is about affordable housing]... First, in areas that have very harsh conditions... homeless people on the streets don’t tend to survive for long periods which lowers their numbers. Secondly, like in my area of Seattle which has a massive homeless population that is growing it seems exponentially, almost 70% of that population are not local residents who became homeless. Rather they are homeless individuals from out of state who have migrated to the area... What are your thoughts on that perspective?

— Michael, from Poulsbo, Washington

Tangle: I'll address these explanations directly, and then the criticism of Carr's piece more broadly.

1) Homeless people outside of fair-weather cities are dying. Data that I found does support the idea that more homeless people are dying in cold cities than in warmer ones. When comparing mortality rates collected from Los Angeles to those from Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and Toronto, there is a clear elevation across the board in deaths in colder cities. But that doesn't really prove Carr wrong. Generally, I see two issues with using this as a rebuttal: First, elevated mortality in cold cities wouldn't explain why people become homeless in any given city, but why there may be more homeless people in warm cities at a given time. Secondly, this point actually implies homelessness is worse than it seems. Obviously, more people dying is a bad thing — so if homelessness is more survivable in Seattle than Philadelphia, then that doesn't mean that Seattle's homelessness problem is over-appreciated. It means Philadelphia's homelessness problem is under-appreciated.

2) Homeless migration. Everything you said to support this was an impression, and is not supported by facts. It seems like homelessness in Seattle is growing exponentially? It isn't — it's growing linearly (and in concert with increasing rents, believe it or not). 70% of Seattle's homelessness population are people who moved to the city? In Seattle, the number's more like 15%, and most of those who aren't from the area are still from the northwest. In a great piece in The Atlantic, Jerusalem Demsas wrote about a study in San Francisco which showed that 90% of the city's homeless population had lost housing in California — and of the 10% who hadn't, a third were from California, while "most" had family or friends in the area.

My thoughts on the perspective you offered are increasingly mirroring Demsas's thoughts: housing breaks people's brains. There are uncountable reasons why people who are vulnerable to homelessness become vulnerable. But I think the evidence is very strong that the reason why vulnerable people become homeless is simply that there aren't enough places for everyone to live.

Blindspot report.

Once a week, we present the Blindspot Report from our partners at Ground News, an app that tells you the bias of news coverage and what stories people on each side are missing.

The right missed a story about how Florida now has the highest inflation rate in the United States.

The left missed a story about a Chicago suburb paying out $25,000 in reparations


  • 66%. The percentage of Americans who support allowing openly transgender people to serve in the military, according to a 2021 Gallup survey.
  • 43%. The percentage of Republicans who support allowing openly transgender people to serve in the military, according to a 2021 Gallup survey.
  • 87%. The percentage of Democrats who support allowing openly transgender people to serve in the military, according to a 2021 Gallup survey.
  • 66%. The percentage of independents who support allowing openly transgender people to serve in the military, according to a 2021 Gallup survey.
  • 66%. The percentage of the public that supports allowing women in the military to serve in ground units engaging in close combat, according to a 2013 Pew survey.


Last week, our YouTube channel broke 5,000 subscribers. To celebrate, we decided to publish a blooper reel from our first 23 videos. Give it a watch, and don't forget to like and subscribe! 

The extras.

  • One year ago today we wrote about the Chips Act.
  • The most clicked link in yesterday's newsletter was the Iowa judge blocking the state's 6-week abortion ban.
  • Leave me out: 520 Tangle readers, a significantly lower-than-average number, answered our poll asking if Israel has a racism problem — and the majority took middle-ground positions. 18% said racism is an 'enormous' problem in Israel, 38% said the problem is 'considerable,' 21% said it is 'moderate,' 15% said 'small,' and 8% said 'no problem at all.'
  • Nothing to do with politics: The thief stealing national headlines and California surfboards: Otter 841.
  • Take the poll. We've made a change to our email subject lines. What do you think about it? Let us know!

Have a nice day.

The first new tuberculosis vaccine in 100 years may be within reach after the announcement that more than $500 million has been pledged by philanthropic institutions for final trials involving 26,000 people in Africa and southeast Asia. The M72/AS01E vaccine, developed by the pharmaceutical company GlaxoSmithKline (GSK), was shown to be 50% effective in phase 2b trials in 2018; but the company pulled out rather than invest in the large-scale trials needed to obtain a license. Then, in 2020, GSK passed the license to the Bill & Melinda Gates Medical Research Institute, which will put up around $400 million for the phase 3 trials, while the global charitable organization Wellcome will provide up to $150 million. “TB remains one of the world’s deadliest infectious diseases,” said Julia Gillard, the chair of Wellcome. “The development of an affordable, accessible vaccine for adults and adolescents would be game changing in turning the tide against TB.” The Guardian has the story.

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Isaac Saul
I'm a politics reporter who grew up in Bucks County, PA — one of the most politically divided counties in America. I'm trying to fix the way we consume political news.