WASHINGTON — U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard describes herself as a leading voice for peace in Congress.
One of the ways she’s backed it up is by voting against the National Defense Authorization Act, one of the few bipartisan success stories in a congressional climate known more for its tribalistic dysfunction than its ability to pass legislation.
The NDAA sets the spending priorities and policy directions for the U.S. military, whether it’s increasing troop levels, building more F-35 fighter jets or beefing up missile defense in the Indo-Pacific region.
For Hawaii, the NDAA lays the groundwork for hundreds of millions of dollars in government investment in the local economy.
But for Gabbard, a member of the Hawaii Army National Guard who’s served two tours of duty in the Middle East, the NDAA has become a tool for political protest.
Her no votes, however, have drawn criticism from political rivals and put her at odds with other members of Hawaii’s delegation, which consistently votes in favor of the bill and its many provisions that benefit the state.
“What the NDAA does is it sets the roadmap,” U.S. Rep. Colleen Hanabusa said. “Without it you can’t get the money that you ultimately want to come into Hawaii. … It also establishes the policy of the United States government to remain committed to the Indo-Pacific.”
Despite using the NDAA to protest the U.S.’s involvement in foreign conflicts, Gabbard has pushed provisions to get more information on key issues for the islands, including those related to relief response in the event of a disaster and preventing invasive species from proliferating in Hawaii and Micronesia.
She also encouraged language that would bolster missile defense coordination with India as well as force the secretary of defense to issue a report on chemical weapons sites in Syria that the U.S. and its allies destroyed in April with targeted missile strikes.
Hanabusa said the Hawaii delegation pays particularly close attention to the NDAA because of the sheer impact it can have on the state’s economy.
For instance, when the House passed the $717 billion NDAA for fiscal year 2019 last month it included support for more than $300 million in construction projects at military installations on the islands.
There were also important policy provisions to protect Hawaii from intercontinental ballistic missile threats, including the continued pursuit of a defense radar that will better equip the U.S. for intercepting incoming ICBMs.
Hanabusa, who’s running for governor against incumbent Gov. David Ige, also pointed out an amendment she and Gabbard sought to require the secretary of defense and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to provide a briefing on ballistic missile alert procedures.
That inclusion in the bill, she said, was in direct response to the false missile alert in January that the state mistakenly sent out to thousands of Hawaii residents.
“Clearly what happened to the people of Hawaii, and the panic for 38 minutes was really unprecedented,” Hanabusa said. “We are addressing this and the government is concerned about it.”
This year Gabbard was the only member of the House Armed Services Committee to vote against the NDAA, which passed 60 to 1.
Then, on May 22, she took to the House floor to fight for an amendment that would have cut language in the bill that allows the secretary of defense and secretary of state to develop a strategy that counters the “destabilizing activities of Iran” without congressional approval.
During a four-and-half-minute floor speech she said the provision, if it remained, would allow the U.S. to go to war with Iran. It was one of the main reasons, she said, she voted against the NDAA in committee.
Gabbard then went on to criticize the U.S. for participating in “military adventurism and interventionist wars,” including in Yemen and Syria, where she traveled in 2017 to meet with President Bashar al-Assad.
“It’s clear that if left unchecked, war hawks in the Trump administration will drag our country into more Middle East wars, leaving destruction in its wake around the world and here at home,” Gabbard said.
“Trillions of taxpayer dollars have already been spent on these regime change wars in the Middle East since 9/11. Rather than dumping more taxpayer dollars in these wars as this provision authorizes, we should instead be investing in rebuilding our communities right here at home.”
Despite the impassioned speech, her amendment failed by a vote of 60 to 355. Even Hanabusa was opposed.
Two days later, on May 24, when the House voted on the full bill, Gabbard again opposed the legislation, along with 65 of her colleagues, almost all of them Democrats.
The congresswoman’s no votes are a relatively new development. From 2013 to 2015, congressional records show she voted in favor of the NDAA even when most of her Democratic colleagues did not.
In 2016, she voted against the bill because of concerns that U.S. weapons being used to aid fighters in Syria would fall into terrorist hands. She explained herself in a press release at the time, but again her statements belied the importance of the bill to Hawaii, as the congresswoman also boasted of the many provisions that directly affected her home state.
Gabbard refused to speak to Civil Beat about the NDAA and how her stance has shifted over the years. But on Thursday after repeated requests for comment — including an attempt to speak with her as she was going into a hearing at the Capitol — her office issued a written statement. It did not, however, address what has led to the change in her voting patterns, as Civil Beat had asked.
“From Iraq, to Libya, to Syria, and beyond, we’ve seen the death and destruction caused by leaders who ignore the high cost of war and perpetuate costly counterproductive regime change wars that destroy people’s lives and drain resources so critically needed in our communities here at home,” Gabbard said in the statement.
“While I was able to pass many beneficial provisions for Hawaii into the bill, ultimately I could not support the overall bill due to the inclusion of an authorization for a new, endless Middle East war against Iran, putting the security and future of Hawaii and our nation at risk and taking even more resources away from the needs of the people of Hawaii.”
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