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Why Doesn’t the Pentagon Ever Get Asked, “But How Will You Pay for It?”

The press has relentlessly debated the costs of the Build Back Better Act. But the Defense Department is getting $768 billion for Christmas with nary a peep.

West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin gestures as he speaks to reporters.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin

Speaking at The Wall Street Journal’s CEO Council Summit on Tuesday, West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin issued a dire warning about the threat of inflation. “The unknown we’re facing today is much greater than the need that people believe in this aspirational bill that we’re looking at,” he said, referring to the Build Back Better Act, a multitrillion social spending bill. “And we’ve got to make sure we get this right. We just can’t continue to flood the market as we’ve done.” Manchin has expressed similar concerns before, but the timing here was not accidental: Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer has said he hopes to pass the bill before Christmas.

While Manchin was droning on about inflation, House Democrats and Republicans were finalizing a $768 billion defense bill, which would ultimately pass on Tuesday in bipartisan fashion: 363–70. That bill—whose ultimate figure was higher than what the Pentagon had even asked for—would authorize a 2.7 percent raise for the military, block the Pentagon from acquiring products produced with forced labor by Ugyhurs in China, and create an independent commission to examine the war in Afghanistan (better late than never!). The bill, known as the National Defense Authorization Act, or NDAA, has not passed the Senate yet, but it is expected to sail through with far less fuss than the Build Back Better Act. Naturally, among the things that favor its chances, is the fact that Manchin has said little about how the outlay could accidentally spur inflationary fears or any such concerns about a huge sum of money getting spent. It is essentially a blank check.

Much has been made of the Build Back Better Act’s price tag—$1.7 trillion at this moment, cut down from an initial wish list more than twice as high—and its potential effect on inflation and the larger economy. For conservative Democrats like Manchin, the figure is astronomical—more than a trillion bucks!—and potentially unconscionable, given things like the rising price of gas and other commodities.

But that figure is somewhat misleading. The $1.7 trillion in spending is spread out over 10 years—meaning that the actual yearly outlay is much lower. The defense spending bill, on the other hand, applies only to 2022. If that figure was dealt with in the same fashion, it would come to north of $7.5 trillion. And yet it has hardly registered either politically or in the media. The social spending bill, however, has been a furious subject of granular debate for several months, much of it focusing on cost—with Republicans and Democrats insisting that the country simply cannot afford to pay such an immense figure for things like paid family leave and universal pre-K.

The biggest reason the defense bill has largely flown under the radar—despite being massive—is bipartisanship. Most Democrats and Republicans agree that giving raises to the military is a good thing and spending more (and, in this case, it’s worth underlining: literally spending more than the Pentagon asked for) on defense is an unalloyed good. Because there is relatively little debate over the bill—and, crucially, because the mainstream of both parties reflexively support it—the mainstream press is covering it, unsurprisingly, as a fait accompli. This bill will ultimately pass without much in the way of argument or debate or intraparty disarray, and therefore there’s nothing to cover.

For a media that is primed only to cover politics as a conflict between a red team and a blue team, this bill is basically a nonentity. And given the press’s squeamishness in covering the military more broadly—emblematic most recently in the disastrous coverage of the withdrawal from Afghanistan, itself a product of the mass media’s cozy relationship with camera-ready celebrities from the military and intelligence fields—little effort goes into even suggesting that there might be anything remotely controversial about military spending. All of this is happening, it’s worth adding, in a presidential administration that has wound down both the war in Afghanistan and the drone war.

The coverage of the Build Back Better Act has been an entirely different beast, and it can be hard to parse the logic why. Its provisions are not just popular with the public but exceptionally popular and, in most cases, on a bipartisan basis: By and large, Americans want universal pre-K, cheaper prescription drugs, and paid family leave. But the bill has ended up being defined not by its merits, or by the public’s needs, but rather by headline-ready conflicts between politicians. On one front, Republicans insist that the bill is too large and will lead to inflation, while conservative Democrats like Joe Manchin have raised a host of vague objections.

This is catnip for the political press: the usual partisan conflict with the added thrill of one party in disarray. These objections have thus been pushed into stories over and over again in print and on cable news, cementing them in the minds of voters. On a second front, there is a gaping empty space that the media’s coverage has left unfilled, due to a lack of effort in explaining what programs will or could end up being funded or expanded by the actual bill, and an unwillingness to offer a comparison to other types of government spending—such as military spending, which is always deemed to be “must pass.”

The comparison is instructive. Both parties have no problem swiftly moving through a gargantuan military spending bill. Meanwhile, one containing a host of social spending programs and increases is endlessly debated not on its merits but on its cost: Can we really afford to spend $400 billion over 10 years on universal pre-K? Can we do so now at a time when gas costs more than $3 a gallon?

In doing so, the media is facilitating a context collapse that keeps ordinary people in the dark, creating an odd situation in which massive military spending is treated as not just a perennial inevitability but something that is simply never up for any serious debate, when it is, in fact, a choice. Meanwhile, popular social programs that would help limit generational poverty are being treated as not just a choice but an extravagance. Right now, these programs are something that serious people will argue cannot be considered in a time of rising costs. Of course, if we weren’t experiencing an inflationary blip, a different set of arguments would simply get dusted off and pressed into service. As always, “But how will you pay for it?” remains the dominant question—at least for some things we’re paying for! People like Joe Manchin, meanwhile, will never ask the military to tighten its belt. They will demand that Democrats consider jettisoning a popular agenda.