No, Kevin McCarthy, Our Aid to Ukraine Is Not a ‘Blank Check’
Get ready: Republicans are gearing up for a fight over the fight over Ukraine.
In a recent interview, Kevin McCarthy—the Republican leader hoping next month’s midterms will make him speaker of the House—said, “I think people are gonna be sitting in a recession and they’re not going to write a blank check to Ukraine.” McCarthy has a point—not about aid to Ukraine, which remains a foreign policy imperative, but about the mood among rank-and-file members of the House GOP conference.
The same day the McCarthy interview was posted, Axios reported that Rep. Scott Perry, the chairman of the House Freedom Caucus, texted members of the conservative group about laying groundwork for investigating the Biden administration for its handling of the Ukraine crisis, suggesting that the president may not have been forthcoming with the American people about his goals in the conflict.
Let’s rewind half a year. Back in May, Heritage Action, the political arm of the Heritage Foundation, argued against the $40 billion aid package to Ukraine in a press release entitled “Ukraine Aid Package Puts America Last.” Like their predecessors who objected to aid to Britain before Pearl Harbor, Heritage argued that the country’s real focus should be its own internal problems—and in 2022, this means inflation, crime, and the border crisis. A few days later, the head of the foreign policy team at the Heritage Foundation, James Carafano, wrote an op-ed for FoxNews.com that took the same tack. The bill must be opposed, he said, for being rushed, for lacking spending offsets, for including apparently unrelated expenditures such as Ukrainian government salaries and benefits, and for lacking detailed justifications for the requested aid amounts. Aid to Ukraine, he argued, should be opposed until “meaningful oversight and accountability” are in place, “not just the same toothless, boilerplate language that allows politicians to claim they’re looking out for taxpayers.” Carafano cited Ronald Reagan as a model for a more “appropriate” way to support Ukraine—an especially ironic suggestion in light of the total absence of oversight when the Reagan administration sent Stinger missiles to the Afghan mujahideen fighting the Soviets.
In the end, the Ukraine aid bill in May passed over the opposition of about a quarter of House Republicans and a fifth of Senate Republicans.
In light of Kevin McCarthy’s remarks about discontinuing aid, it’s worth setting the record straight about the aid the Biden administration has sent Ukraine so far. Americans today are not supplying weapons to a militia taking part in an anarchic civil war. We are materially supporting a democratically elected government that retains civilian control over its military, a professionalized fighting force that has spent decades training with NATO and American forces, including Ukrainian officers studying at American military academies.
Regarding oversight: The problem with the aid packages sent to Ukraine is not that they lack substantial oversight, but that the oversight they require is too rigorous. The May aid package, for example, requires the secretary of defense and the inspector general of the Department of Defense to separately send reports to Congress about how the money is being spent; the secretary is required to submit new reports every 30 days through fiscal year 2023. The Pentagon’s overwrought bureaucracy has already slowed the parallel processes of supplying Ukraine with aid and restoring U.S. military stockpiles through procurement. The situation is bad enough that congressional leaders from both parties are planning to give the Pentagon emergency procurement powers to help cut through the red tape. Contra Carafano, our fastidious bookkeeping is actually a factor that is prolonging the war, multiplying its terrible costs, both human and financial.
Regarding the price tag: The bare figures obscure much about how the money is being spent. Consider the $40 billion aid package enacted in May. That money has been approved for a multi-year disbursement—a fact that has apparently been lost on some of the aid package’s most vociferous critics, who appear to believe the money has been freshly printed, stacked on pallets, and shipped on a C-130 straight to Kyiv. For example, a piece posted to Monthly Review Online claimed, “The sum the U.S. has already spent on this war in a few months is quickly approaching the annual military budget of the entire Russian military.” Similarly, the Heritage Action press release from May argued that the package comes at “a higher cost than the Department of Justice’s annual budget.” Setting decontextualized amounts next to one another in this way is highly misleading. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that, apportioned as it is into yearly allocations, the money approved for use in the aid package passed in May will not be exhausted until Fiscal Year 2031; the estimated overall spending over the next two years is $14 billion, and it won’t exceed $10 billion a year.
Other aspects of the bill further complicate the picture. Around $19 billion, less than half of the total package, has been allocated to supporting Ukraine’s military in the near-term, but it is crucial to note that this figure represents the amount of spending that the executive branch has been given discretion over, not an amount that is automatically spent.
And a variety of limits and conditions on the use of the funds mean that not all the money will be spent, even if the administration would prefer to spend it. Some of the funds have a near-term expiration date. For instance, $6 billion that has been designated for the Ukraine Security Assistance Initiative will expire in September 2023, whether the money has been spent or not. Some of the funding relates to specific items and can’t be shifted even if battlefield needs change—which means that if it turns out that the Ukrainians don’t need as many missiles as provided for in the bill, but they need more fighters, the bill won’t allow for the leftover missile money to be used to purchase aircraft: The money would go unspent, and Congress would need to pass a new bill to make more funds available for the jets.
Given the bipartisan popularity of the Ukrainian cause—nearly three quarters of Americans agree that the United States should continue to materially support Ukraine in spite of Putin’s nuclear threats, including two thirds of polled Republicans—why is Kevin McCarthy signaling his intention to reduce aid to Ukraine?
One explanation: conservative concern about spending. Another explanation: Republicans don’t give their own base enough credit for supporting Ukraine. Yet another explanation: a desire to please Donald Trump, who tends to oppose foreign aid and has, shall we say, a track record of being friendlier to Russia than to Ukraine. And finally, a more cynical explanation: a desire to turn Ukraine into a wedge issue that can help Republicans.
No matter the explanation, if Republican legislators are losing their nerve and moral clarity about Ukraine, it’s up to Joe Biden to work proactively to clarify what the critics have obscured and once again galvanize public enthusiasm for Ukrainian freedom. Kevin McCarthy and his conference may want to walk away from Ukraine; President Biden, whose leadership on Ukraine has so far been praiseworthy, must make this painful for McCarthy and his conference. It is way overdue for the president to address the nation and make the case for Ukraine. And the good news is that he can rely on the backing of Mitch McConnell, who to his credit has not wavered in his support of Ukraine.