The conservative crusade against critical race theory has entered the national security arena — with Republican lawmakers accusing the Pentagon of embracing the ideology and locking horns with military brass — and is likely to weigh on deliberations on defense policy legislation this summer.
GOP lawmakers and right-wing personalities have assailed Pentagon leadership for its efforts to combat extremism and racism in the ranks, arguing it has made the military “woke.” The mounting culture wars could be one of the more hotly debated issues when the House Armed Services Committee considers its version of the National Defense Authorization Act, a must-pass bill that will likely need at least some Republican support to pass.
“I think you can expect that, in the NDAA markup, for this conversation to be a part of it,” said Rep. Jim Banks (R-Ind.), an Armed Services member who chairs the conservative Republican Study Committee.
“I don’t know what that’s going to look like yet, but … this is a concern I’ve heard expressed by almost every Republican colleague on the committee and off the committee,” Banks added.
Republicans have been needling Pentagon leadership for months, arguing the department’s efforts at increasing diversity and rooting out extremism are silencing conservatives and undermining the military’s core mission.
The issue came to a head this week as Republican Reps. Matt Gaetz and Michael Waltz tangled with Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Mark Milley over critical race theory at an Armed Services Committee hearing. Milley’s fiery response — where the four star general shot back that assertions that the military is too “woke” are “offensive” — went viral, but saw more criticism from conservative pundits.
Key Republicans are telegraphing that critical race theory and other wedge issues will be on the agenda when the committee takes up the defense policy bill in September, and that they expect issues dealing with military personnel to provide some of the clearest red lines for whether the GOP will back the bill.
“This is going to be a significant area of debate in the markup that we’re going to have on Sept. 1, because there is a frustration about wokeness and indoctrination in the military that’s not their role,” Rep. Mike Rogers of Alabama, the top Republican on the House Armed Services Committee told POLITICO.
Rogers declared last month that he wants to see the defense bill address what he considers political bias against conservatives in the ranks. He hasn’t said what such a proposal will entail, but called on Republicans and “free-speech minded Democrats” to join him in the effort.
Waltz warned earlier this month he may push to include legislation he’s cosponsored to prohibit the military service academies from promoting critical race theory. This issue may come up during debate on the defense bill.
Democrats’ thin House majority means GOP support will be needed to pass the NDAA later this year, but Republicans still must decide which issues to emphasize in the defense debate.
So far, top Republicans are expending most of their political capital elsewhere, namely by trying to boost the defense budget above the essentially flat $715 billion Pentagon proposal President Joe Biden offered last month.
In the broader House, though, Banks, who leads the largest conservative caucus in the House, is pushing fellow Republicans to lean into anti-critical race theory rhetoric — a concept that argues that American institutions have been set up to reinforce racism. Banks sent RSC members a memo on Thursday titled “Lean into the culture war,” as the right aims to capitalize on the issue.
“This is a dangerous ideology to push out in any shape or form on our troops,” Banks told POLITICO. “This is something the American people categorically reject.”
Red lines on the NDAA: Unlike previous years where fights over military hardware, nuclear weapons and war powers have been partisan sticking points, Republicans are forecasting that a slew of personnel issues could swing their votes.
That includes how the panel tackles extremism in the military as well as a Democratic push to enshrine in law the ability of transgender troops to serve openly.
Rogers, who enjoys a solid working relationship with Armed Services Chair Adam Smith (D-Wash.), said he warned that certain “social stuff” would be a red line for Republicans.
“I said the problems that would cause Republicans not to vote yes are in the Military Personnel subcommittee,” Rogers said. “And I said, ‘You’ve got to rein it in.'”
How will Republicans use their leverage? Republicans are confident that their votes will ultimately be required to pass a defense bill on the House floor this fall, with a slim Democratic majority and a cadre of progressives opposed to historically large defense budgets that makes passing a bill with only Democrats impractical.
And while conservatives may seek votes on some wedge issues, Republican leaders have been focused on efforts to boost the defense budget. Rogers and other top Armed Services Republicans have slammed the Biden administration for proposing a Pentagon budget that doesn’t keep up with the expected rate of inflation, arguing a much larger increase is needed to compete with the rapidly modernizing Chinese and Russian militaries.
The Alabama Republican predicted extremism and race won’t dominate the committee’s deliberations, as he’ll focus on whether the budget is sufficient to defend the country.
“You’re going to see most of what we’re focused on is trying to make sure they have what they need to meet the pacing threat, as they call it, of China, and this budget is grossly inadequate,” Rogers said.
“My frustration is in that hearing, 95 percent of the discussion was about the inadequacy of the budget,” Rogers said of testy exchanges between lawmakers and Pentagon leaders on Wednesday. “And because this issue pops up and it’s the bright shiny item of the day, it becomes the dominant thing in the news media. And I really believe that Milley fed into that.”
‘Straw man’: Like Rogers, Smith said he’s not concerned right now about the debate on cultural issues getting out of hand when his committee takes up the defense bill. Still, he dinged Republicans as seeking to “wish away” the problems of race in the U.S. and using the specter of critical race theory to avoid an honest discussion about racism. The Washington state Democrat also praised Austin’s handling of extremism and racism in the military.
“The Republicans just want to engage in political theater, setting up a straw man — critical race theory — and knocking it down instead of actually addressing the issue,” Smith said.
“The unfortunate thing is that there is a real problem in this country with systemic racism, with white supremacy and with extremist groups,” Smith added. “This is a legitimate issue that needs to be addressed, and what the Republicans want to say is it’s all about critical race theory. It’s not.”