The National Defense Authorization Act passed the House today with a huge, bipartisan majority of 300 to 119. The bill to fund the military (in the amount of $585 billion) now goes to the Senate where it has bipartisan support. In an emailed statement, majority leader Kevin McCarthy (R- Calif.) summarized its key provisions: “The bill funds troop readiness and also supports our military operations against ISIL in Iraq and Syria, while ensuring increased Congressional oversight on these activities. It also explicitly prohibits the transfer of Guantanamo detainees to the United States and denies funding for any terrorist detention facilities on American soil. Notably, the bill also prohibits another round of the Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) process from being carried out in 2015.”
It did not include a bipartisan measure from Sen. Kristian Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), Rand Paul (R-Ky.), Susan Collins (R-Me.) and others that would have taken investigation and punishment of sexual assaults outside the chain of command. The measure drew harsh objections from the Pentagon and pro-defense lawmakers. A GOP aide sneered, saying senators were in essence “giving a sloppy kiss to an amendment that takes authority out of the hands of military commanders, the guys who know their troops the best, and puts it in the hands of government bureaucrats.” (Building on past legislation, further reforms supported by the military are included in the House bill.)
With regard to the substance of the bill, the House Armed Services Committee summary observed:
This year’s budget request reflects years of compounding resource cuts to national security. Indeed, President Obama has directed over $1 trillion in cuts to the military since he took office. The President’s FY15 base budget request is $31 billion less than called for in his FY14 budget. His request paid for the cuts by dramatically reducing the size of the military, increasing out of pocket expenses for military families, and cutting vital programs. Armed Services Members are not prepared to accept a smaller less capable force at this time. Members from both parties worked hard to find savings in less critical areas that do not pose the threat of irrevocable damage to the force or the potential to harm recruiting or retention. Still, at current resource levels, tough choices must be made.
On military readiness the HASC warned:
Our military is experiencing ever growing challenges maintaining readiness as a result of sequestration, leading to a system of tiered readiness where only deploying military personnel are fully trained and ready to deploy. To address this concern the NDAA builds on the work done by Chairman Rob Wittman (R-VA) and the Subcommittee on Readiness to provide over $212 billion for operation and maintenance requirements funding activities such as ship refueling and overhaul, depot maintenance, and facilities sustainment. The NDAA further addresses critical readiness gaps associated with depot maintenance, flying hour programs and base operations support caused by sequestration and repeated resource cuts. These are achieved by diverting funds from lower priority items. Members remain concerned however that if resource trends are not reversed soon, any tentative gains in these accounts will be diminished or eliminated. Consistently failing to meet appropriate levels of combat readiness places our troops at risk.
In a moving goodbye speech, retiring chairman Buck McKeon (R-Calif.) admonished his colleagues to end the sequester limits. Asking them to think of the troops, he deplored the “shame” in failing to adequately equip, prepare, pay and care for them.
Indeed, the next Congress will need to address the knotty issue of the sequester in order to put the military on sound footing and allow it to plan for the future. “Sequester is Latin for politicians doing dumb things,” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) likes to say. In a Capitol Hill interview with me he vowed to take on the sequester cuts. He was candid that refunding defense will require both sides to give something. He said, “There is no social security without national security. . . A strong government starts with a strong national defense.” His idea is to “buy back” most of the sequester with a combination of entitlement reform and closing tax expenditures aimed at discrete businesses. Without opening up all entitlement reform he wants to consider eliminating the Medicare Part D drug subsidy for those making $200,000 or more and extend the budgeting window to stretch out and lessen the yearly reductions. But he will also insist on Pentagon reforms on personnel, acquisition, and retirement to eliminate waste and excess. “I will be leading that fight,” he says.
Graham has been consistent on the sequester. “I voted against the sequester,” Graham recalled. “My concern was that when it comes to Congress expect the worst and you won’t be disappointed.” As he predicted, the super-committee failed and we are now cannibalizing our own defense. “Now here we are and everything I feared would come to pass has. I would say to libertarians in my party [who likely will want all tax loophole savings to go to tax rate reduction] security is the first and biggest obligation of the federal government. The tax code is not going to keep ISIL at bay.” He adds, “If we cannot buyback the sequester we have lost our way.”
New pro-defense senators will join Graham, but they will be tested with hard votes. They may imagine they can “force” the president to take all the savings out of domestic items, but they can stick to that position or solve the problem, but not both with this president. They will need to decide if their rhetoric on the primacy of national security outweighs ideological purity on revenue.
McKeon has been exemplary in highlighting the need to replenish the military; now it will be up to Graham and his old and new colleagues to get that job done.