WASHINGTON – U.S. Rep. Betty McCollum is facing a major political challenge.
The Minnesota Democrat leads the House subcommittee crafting a defense-spending bill at a time when President Joe Biden is pushing for an increase, Republicans want to spend even more and some progressives want to cut.
"I don't think there's going to be a defense bill that's going to ever be in the history as progressive as this one's going to be, hopefully, by the time I'm done with it," McCollum said in an interview.
The White House is asking for $715 billion for the Department of Defense in its 2022 fiscal year budget request. But the final product is a matter for McCollum, and Congress, to decide.
"You've got the president's budget on one hand, then you've got some very passionate people on the far left of the spectrum that think we spend way too much on defense," said Rep. Steve Womack, an Arkansas Republican who serves on the defense subcommittee and considers McCollum a friend. "And so she'll have to navigate that difficulty, and then on top of all of that, a narrow majority for Democrats in the House."
In March, dozens of House Democrats, including Minnesota Rep. Ilhan Omar, joined a letter urging Biden "to seek a significantly reduced Pentagon top line" in his budget request. The Democratic president's work to withdraw troops from Afghanistan also sparked similar calls.
"Could it have been a little lower? Maybe. But that's the number that the president has given us," McCollum said about the $715 billion figure. When more budget details were released a day later, she said in a statement that Biden's proposed 1.6% increase in defense spending is "an investment in sustaining readiness and modernization efforts across the Services, and also as a mechanism to continue to sustain millions of American jobs vital to our economy."
Rep. Ken Calvert, a California Republican who serves as the subcommittee's ranking member, thinks the top line should be around $739 billion. He and others contend that, given inflation, the budget request from Biden amounts to a cut. But when it comes to working with McCollum, "I think we have a healthy respect for each other's differences and we have to work around that," Calvert said.
"She's at the center of a very constrained timeline with lots of competing pressures pulling her in lots of different directions," said John Ferrari, a retired Army major general who is a visiting fellow at the conservative-leaning American Enterprise Institute. "And she's got to steer that through in a bipartisan fashion to get agreement in a few months."
McCollum is the most senior member of Minnesota's congressional delegation, a steady Democratic presence from a reliably blue district. Yet within her Fourth Congressional District, opinions vary on what McCollum should do about the military budget.
Ramsey County Commissioner Trista MatasCastillo, a military veteran and progressive Democrat who supports the congresswoman, welcomed McCollum's role.
"To have a strong progressive viewpoint on a moral document such as defense spending? That's kind of awesome," MatasCastillo said.
Yet other constituents want McCollum to use her influence to cut defense spending. Mary Beaudoin of St. Paul, a former director of Women Against Military Madness, said she wants to see the military budget cut "very much" under McCollum's watch.
"I would ask her to use her position to cut the Pentagon's spending so that that money can be used to fund human needs, not the threat of war," Beaudoin said.
St. Paul City Council member Mitra Jalali, a progressive Democrat, said McCollum should "use this as an opportunity to just embrace what I see as a longstanding and also rising movement to push back on unchecked continual spending on defense at the expense of other core priorities."
Back in Washington, McCollum remains confident in her positions, saying "progressives in my district know I stand up for human rights and they know that I'm going to do that as chair of the defense committee."
McCollum has served on the House Appropriations Committee since 2007 and started on the defense subcommittee in 2013 before becoming vice chair of the subcommittee in 2019.
"Writing appropriations bills entails hard choices and difficult trade-offs, and I am confident that Chair McCollum will work with members on both sides of the aisle to produce a strong Defense bill that protects our security and meets the needs of our women and men in uniform," Rep. Rosa DeLauro, the Democratic House Appropriations Committee chair, said in a statement.
But McCollum admits that leading the work of defense funding wasn't top of mind when she was first elected to Congress in 2000.
"After the war in Afghanistan, and then I voted against the war in Iraq, I realized if progressives, if liberals, are going to have a voice in this we have to be willing to do the work, get on the committees and learn how they operate," McCollum said.
She believes defense has widespread reach, from nuclear weapons to babies being delivered in military base hospitals, from quality of life for members of the military to ensuring they have the equipment they need to complete their mission and get back home.
When McCollum talks about paying for defense, she says she wants to be efficient with tax dollars and hold the military accountable for its spending. Funding the defense department also amounts to "a big jobs bill," she said, given the many people employed because of the nation's military footprint.
"Yes, we need to make sure that we can defend our shores," McCollum said. "But there's a lot of things in the defense bill that can be put back towards the good for all of society here in the United States and sometimes with some of the health interventions, internationally."
To some House progressives, McCollum urged a "wait and see" approach. To Republicans, she's far more pointed.
"The president's budget is an increase over what President Trump's top line was," McCollum said. "Eleven billion dollars, that's a lot of money. So, when is it ever going to be enough for some people?"
Longevity in Congress has brought McCollum power and influence on defense spending. But friends and supporters back in Minnesota concede her role isn't widely known, if even entirely understood, by her constituents.
"I don't think the district realizes it, and frankly given how mixed up everything feels right now in terms of politics, I'm not sure how valued it would be unfortunately," said Sue Vento, the widow of former Democratic U.S. Rep. Bruce Vento, who held the seat before McCollum. She is a close friend. "I am so glad she's there. She's not going to get caught up worrying about whether people realize what a significant role she has or not. She's just going to go about doing the work and getting it done."
Hunter Woodall • 612-673-4559