Partisan bickering in the U.S. House of Representatives has risen to such levels that it has become difficult for that august body to do the work of the people. That animosity was highlighted with last week’s passage of the 2020 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). The bill, which directs spending, policy and regulatory guidance for the Department of Defense, has passed easily in both chambers of Congress with strong bipartisan support for the past 58 sessions.
Not this year. On July 12, the NDAA squeaked through the House on a 220-197 vote without a single Republican approving the measure. Traditionally, the bill receives more than 300 of the 435 House votes. In comparison, the 2018 defense budget was approved on a 351-66 House vote. (In the Senate this year, the defense bill easily passed 86-8.)
House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam Smith, D-Wash., says although this defense bill represents the values of the new Democratic-majority House, it still supports national defense. In a statement, he claims “our Republican colleagues chose to abandon one of the last true bastions of bipartisanship, just because they didn’t get their way on 100% of the provisions in this bill.”
But House Republicans say they couldn’t support the bill because it fails to provide the 3%-5% growth that the bipartisan National Defense Strategy Commission, former Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Gen. Joseph Dunford and other military experts insist is necessary for an effective defense strategy. At $733 billion, the House version provides only 2.4% growth. (The Senate’s $746.4 billion bill meets the target, increasing the defense budget by 4.2%.)
The GOP also took issue with cuts added by Democrats to conventional missile and nuclear weapons programs. U.S. Rep Rob Wittman, R-Va., the ranking member on the Seapower and Projection Forces subcommittee, voted “no” on a national defense bill for the first time in his 11-years in office. He says the “legislation does not provide the funding the department needs and these cuts directly impact readiness recovery, military personnel and America’s ability to deter Russia, China, Iran and other bad actors. Beyond that, the bill imposes limitations on low-yield nuclear weapons, restrictions on the president’s request to secure the border, and an entirely avoidable failure to adequately restrict the 9/11 detainees.”
There is much in the NDAA of which we approve. It provides service members a 3.1% pay raise, funding to refuel the USS Harry S. Truman, and authorizes the procurement of 11 battle force ships. The Hampton Roads area stands to benefit from this bill.
But at this point, the bill is still far from becoming law. House and Senate members will have to meet in conference committee to reconcile their two versions. Several key issues need to be ironed out — the largest being the $13.4 billion difference between the two bills. Other issues include House provisions limiting President Trump’s ability to use military personnel on the border or defense funds to build a border wall. The House bill also prevents the president from attacking Iran without congressional approval.
Unfortunately, time has become a crucial element in the bill’s passage. The House has less than three weeks left in session, the Senate less than a month. Lawmakers already are discussing the possibility of implementing a continuing resolution (CR). That would be the worst of all outcomes. Under a CR, there would be substantial negative impacts — training, readiness and contracting could be delayed or canceled. Personnel would likely see quality of life improvements and pay raises delayed. Operating the Defense Department on a continuing resolution is as much a waste of money as pouring gasoline on stack of bills and lighting it on fire.
Last year, the FY2019 NDAA was passed, on the president’s desk and signed by Aug. 13. It was the first time in a decade that a CR wasn’t enacted, improving military readiness and saving taxpayers and the Pentagon millions. What a difference a year makes. We hope that House members can swallow their pride and put aside their quarreling long enough for a compromise bill to be approved and on the president’s desk before the end of the fiscal year. Our military deserves nothing less.
— Robin Beres