A maverick lawmaker on the House Armed Services Committee on Thursday boosted a modest proposal made years ago by then-Sen. Charles Rangel: a dedicated "war tax" that would draw attention to military spending and force Americans to confront the cost of defense.
Rep. Walter Jones, a North Carolina Republican, is perhaps best known for his advocacy on behalf of troops and military families, despite staunch opposition to recent wars, including those in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Speaking at the Amphibious Warship Industrial Base Coalition's annual Capitol Hill breakfast Thursday, Jones acknowledged a need to shore up military strength, but said he is unwilling to "borrow from the next generation" to get the funds to do so.
Rangel, a Korean War veteran who represented New York in Congress as a Democrat from 1971 to 2017, used to accompany Jones on walks to and from the House floor for votes, the North Carolina congressman said.
"Charlie Rangel ... said we need a war tax," Jones said. "I don't know if it will happen. Probably not, to be honest about it. But it needs to be a national push for a dedicated war tax if we want to have a strong military."
During his tenure in Congress, Rangel pushed not only for a war tax, but also for reinstatement of the military draft. The two measures were never likely to find popular support, but served to help him make a point about the cost of war.
"Both the war surcharge and conscription will give everyone in America a real stake in any decision on going to war, and compel the public to think twice before they make a commitment to send their loved ones into harm's way," Rangel wrote in a Time opinion editorial in September 2014.
The idea of a war tax has bobbed to the surface at various times over the last two decades.
R. Russell Rumbaugh, a former CIA analyst and then associate at the Stimson Center, pushed the idea in a 2013 op-ed in The New York Times, saying the tax was urgently needed then in light of pushes for military intervention in places such as Syria and Mali.
A little over a year after Rumbaugh's op-ed was published, the United States launched Operation Inherent Resolve, a joint large-scale fight against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria involving thousands of airstrikes, special operations troops, and advisers on the ground.
The idea was revived last year in a Slate editorial as an antidote to President Donald Trump's hawkishness.
"There's ... a massive military establishment in place to advocate for war," wrote author Noah Berlatsky. "There's no counterbalancing establishment to advocate for peace."
Jones, whose district includes Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, has dedicated years to advocacy on behalf of individual service members and families.
He fought for more than a decade to amend the record for two Marine Corps widows whose husbands perished in a 2000 MV-22 Osprey crash that was initially attributed to pilot error, winning formal absolution for the pilots in 2016.
Most recently, he marked a victory when the Corps reiterated that seven MARSOC Marines, initially accused of killing civilians, had acted appropriately during a 2007 ambush in Afghanistan.
Jones, who has paid a political price inside his own party for refusing to endorse recent wars, said a robust military should be "number one" in priority. But, he said, borrowing from the next generation to buy that military would be "a sin."
"If you want a strong military, you've got to pay for it. Congress cannot continue to borrow from the next generation," Jones said. "And I want to see a strong military. And I want Congress to have the courage to have this kind of debate sooner rather than later."