Conservatives Say ‘So-Called Wins’ In New Defense Bill Won’t Check Pentagon’s Diversity Agenda

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Micaela Burrow Investigative Reporter, Defense
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Congress’ defense bill is a failure in the view of conservatives who hoped it would take strides toward eliminating the military’s prioritization of race, ethnicity and gender in the military over qualifications for the job.

GOP leaders touted provisions in the bill they said would “gut” the Biden administration’s “woke” agenda infiltrating the military, including prohibitions on teaching Critical Race Theory and suspending the digital ambassador recruiting initiative that platformed a drag queen. However, many who campaigned against wokeness in the military told the DCNF that the legislation at best reinforces status quo policy and at worst blockades progress toward ensuring the military puts the best people on the job of defending America.

“The impact of this NDAA is the continuation of the military’s unchecked politicization. The so-called ‘wins’ conservatives cite amount to basic restatements of the existing military policy that allows uniformed and civilian leaders to implement policies like race and sex-based quotas,” William Thibeau, director of the American Military Project at the Claremont Institute, told the DCNF.

The Department of Defense doubled down on progressive policies and rhetoric in 2023 by defending race-based admissions and assignments, pushing to circumvent state regulations over abortion access, emphasizing gender identity and enshrining racial and gender diversity as an indispensable component of warfighting effectiveness.

Republican members of Congress set out to correct that in their annual defense bill passed on Dec. 14, which sets the boundaries of Pentagon policy but doesn’t directly appropriate funds. (RELATED: ‘I Hire For Diversity’: Pentagon Nominees Blocked By GOP Senator Are Pushing Left-Wing Initiatives To Reshape Military)

The Republican-led House stuffed its version of the policy bill, passed in July, with so-called anti-woke provisions. Many survived through to the final legislation, but some of the more contentious provisions were weeded out in the compromise process with the Senate, the final report shows.

One initiative spearheaded by GOP Rep. Ronny Jackson of Texas would have overturned the Pentagon’s policy to cover travel expenses for service members seeking abortions. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin announced the policy in February to safeguard unfettered abortion access as more states began restricting abortion. Another provision in the House bill would have barred the military health insurance program from supplying hormone treatments and paying for sex change surgeries for transgender service members.

But neither of those amendments made it into the final National Defense Authorization Act for fiscal year 2024 currently awaiting President Joe Biden’s signature.

“Each of the DoD personnel policies that the House legislative proposals sought to fix have the cumulative effect of burdening the military with more requirements that distract and divert resources from what should be the focus: readiness to fight,” retired Lt. Gen. Thomas Spoehr, an expert on defense policy and strategy, told the DCNF.

Senate Armed Services Committee ranking member Roger Wicker of Mississippi championed an amendment to ensure the military elevates merit as the sole basis for personnel decisions — in accordance with existing Department of Defense policy. His version won out against a similar amendment proposed by Rep. Jim Banks of Indiana banning quotas, determination based on favoritism or nepotism and any characteristic aside from “qualifications, performance, integrity, fitness, training and conduct,” the amendment stated.

“This was more important than any DEI office, drag show, or recruiting advertisement. Even though this language passed the House, the secretive, leadership-led negotiation process struck this language from the NDAA that eventually became law,” Thibeau told the DCNF.

“Yes, language is included which reminds the military they must evaluate decision on the basis of merit, but this does nothing to change the predominant ethos of DEI that is determinative in the Biden-Austin Pentagon,” he added.

“A military accession or a promotion in the Department of Defense shall be based on individual merit and demonstrated performance,” the amendment reads, according to the report on the bill. However, it omitted language in Wicker’s initial act that specified the amendment applied to education and training as well.

The final amendment dropped the definition of “equity” and prohibitions on DOD instruction in, or requiring service members to affirm, that any any sex, race, ethnicity, religion or nationality is inherently better or worse than another, included in the Senate’s initial version.

“Basically the bill stands for promoting and assigning people based on merit and performance, not demographic quotas,” Wicker told the DCNF.

Another amendment caps annual salaries for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) administrators at $70,000, which means most officials will have to find other jobs or accept difficult pay cuts, according to data the Pentagon’s personnel office provided to Republican Missouri Sen. Eric Schmidt. The Pentagon also cannot hire more officials into DEI-focused roles until Congress receives the results of an audit of all DOD offices and programming.

House Armed Services Committee Republican leader Mike Rogers of Alabama said the bill “guts Biden’s woke agenda” in a statement before the House forwarded the legislation to Biden for enactment.

“Unfortunately many of the provisions of the House version of the NDAA that would have been even more beneficial, were lost in conference,” Spoehr said.

The bill reiterates policy that the Pentagon cannot fund drag shows or drag queen story hours, which the Pentagon banned just this year after backlash. It also prohibits funding for Critical Race Theory (CRT) to be taught at service academies, in professional military education or any other training scenario, and blocks any requirement to show pronouns in official communication.

A so-called Parents Bill of Rights also allows military parents to force transparency from the Pentagon’s school system.

Amid worries the Pentagon was relaxing requirements to address a recruiting shortfall, the NDAA tightens fitness standards for service members in the combat arms specialties.

A spokesperson for the House Armed Services Committee did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

Some noted Republicans faced an uphill battle to build an anti-woke defense bill.

“We got these wins in a democratic majority,” a Senate Republican aide told the DCNF. “It’s really hard to overstate.”

A package of anti-woke amendments had to be decided at the top levels of leadership, according to another Senate Republican aide. The House’s bill served as a messaging vehicle as Republicans would have known the Democrat-controlled Senate would mount a strong opposition.

“This enables [HASC ranking member Democratic Washington Rep.] Adam Smith and House Democrats to swing a mighty big stick in the negotiation,” the aide said. “Every single victory — that we consider a victory — was a hard fought victory.”

However, experts said the bill did little to restrain the Pentagon’s overall subjection to progressive ideology.

“Yes, a defense budget with important provisions passed, but once again, conservatives didn’t have the interest or courage in using the importance of this bill to implement needed reforms that would make the military more effective. This is a shame and voters should take note in advance of an election year,” Thibeau told the DCNF.

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