I ordered the book Congress Buys a Navy [U.S. Naval Institute Press, 2016] by naval historian Paul Pedisich hoping to find a story of how farsighted lawmakers overcame reluctant presidents and built a fleet for a global power role during the years it covers, 1881-1921. Instead I found a chronology of parochialism and porkbarrel politics. Hardly anyone in either the executive or legislative branch had a vision of a future navy, just requests for new ships a year at a time.
Pedisich tells how Congress repeatedly rejected proposals for navy reorganization because it valued the patronage possibilities in the service's 8 bureau system. He documents recurring fights over whether to build ships in navy shipyards or private ones. And prior to the Spanish-American war of 1898, Congress forced delays in actual ship construction by demanding that contractors meet a $300 per ton price for armor plate, far below the industry standard of $400-500.
Eventually, spurred by the 1898 war and later by a rearmament binge in 1916, Congress did build a navy "second to none." But it was accomplished without a strategic plan and only by compromises to serve member interests.
Pedisich mentions but does not seem to recognize the significance of one development that I think explains why Congress actually put serious money into naval modernization in the mid-1880s. In 1885, the House gave its naval affairs committee the power to write appropriations bills. Until then, that panel approved bills authorizing new ship programs, but they were ignored and slashed by the appropriations committee. The Senate made a similar change after 1898, and the navy committees retained appropriations power until after World War I. The power to shape actual money bills greatly improved the legislative chances of naval expansionists.
One reason Congress reverted to single appropriations committees in the early 1920s was to avoid the overspending by the many committees that could both authorize and appropriate. Lesson learned.