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Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin
Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin makes a statement at a press conference. Maya Alleruzzo/AP

House Republicans Take Aim at Diversity Initiatives in the Military

The debate over the annual defense policy bill got spirited when Republicans went after two diversity policies in the military.

Deep into the debate of the annual National Defense Authorization Act Wednesday night, a slate of amendments came up in the House Armed Services Committee going after what Republicans call “Wokeness in the Military.”

The GOP proposals were targeted at two Pentagon policies to promote diversity. The first amendment would remove consideration of “politics, race, color, sex or religion” from the Department of Defense’s “military accession, promotion, and command selection.” The other amendment would force military service academies to exclusively use a merit-based criteria for admissions.

Both proposals were sponsored by Rep. Jim Banks of Indiana, and both were adopted on party-line votes during the marathon committee markup Wednesday.

While the votes turned out to be routine partisan affairs, the debate was a spirited mess.

“There are a whole lot of pretty effective fighting forces throughout the time in human history that were highly capable and highly lethal and weren’t highly diverse,” Rep. Matt Gaetz said during the amendment debate Wednesday night. (Gaetz has long criticized diversity efforts at the Pentagon, going so far as to suggest that more pro-diversity policies would be implemented across the military because Gen. Charles Q. Brown is the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.)

The use of race as part of the service academy admissions process is, as Democrats pointed out, something that even the Supreme Court dared not to change.

“Today, my Republican colleagues are attempting to go further than what six conservative justices felt comfortable doing,” Democratic Rep. Steven Horsford of Nevada said during the amendment debate, referring to a carve-out the Supreme Court created for the military service academies to consider diversity in the admissions process.

Fellow Democratic Rep. Pat Ryan of New York noted that Chief Justice John Roberts cited a “distinct interest” in keeping the military diverse and, therefore, wanted to allow the service academies to consider things like race when admitting new cadets.

“What is that ‘distinct interest?’” asked Ryan. “I think we can all agree that implicit in that was national security.”

After the vote, Ryan claimed to NOTUS that Republicans want to put the military on a path to “where we were a hundred years ago, with a rich, elite officer class that can’t relate to their soldiers.”

“It’s cultural war bullshit,” he said. “When we should be focused on real war and preparing for it.”

Banks, for his part, said his amendment was critical “if we want to keep our military apolitical, lethal and strong.” And other Republicans quickly jumped into the debate to accuse Democrats of being patronizing toward minority groups.

“I find it offensive, to me personally, that you think I need a helping hand,” Florida Republican Rep. Carlos Gimenez, who was born in Cuba, said Wednesday. “I can do it myself.”

Gimenez talked about working for his own opportunities. “Thank you very much. I don’t need your helping hand,” he said.

Fellow Florida Republican Rep. Michael Waltz, who is a combat veteran, claimed that diversity and inclusion measures in the military had gone beyond what was intended. “Clearly, there may be something that’s good, well-intentioned — something to address those past wrongs,” he said. But he concluded that the current policies had “gone too far.”

Still, not all Republicans were as enthusiastic about the amendments.

While he voted for the proposal, Rep. Austin Scott of Georgia said it bothered him that he didn’t have more African American applicants trying to get into the military service academies. (Applicants need a member of Congress to sponsor their application, and lawmakers play a major role in the process.)

“I don’t agree with it being the deciding factor, but I do agree that we need more applicants,” Scott said.

Democrats again countered that the effect of Banks’ amendment would be to shift the service academy admissions process heavily toward standardized testing, which would ultimately result in a very different military leadership.

“It’s locking in advantage for rich kids that others just don’t have,” Rep. Chris DeLuzio of Pennsylvania said.

But Democratic Rep. Marc Veasey of Texas was perhaps the most direct about the amendment. He didn’t think either proposal was about trying to make the military better.

“Let’s just be realistic,” Veasey said. “Let’s just be honest and say that this is about politics.”

On Thursday, the ranking Democrat on the Armed Services Committee told NOTUS that he didn’t think the final bill would include either of Banks’ proposals.

“There is no way these become law,” Rep. Adam Smith of Washington said. “On the House floor, I suspect they’ll survive. But they’ll meet pretty strong opposition in the Senate.”

John T. Seward is a NOTUS reporter and an Allbritton Journalism Institute fellow.