The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

House tries to avoid messy political battles over Pentagon policy bill

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, left, and Army Gen. Mark A. Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, speak with the media at NATO headquarters in Brussels in June. (Olivier Matthys/AP)

The House of Representatives is expected to give bipartisan approval this week to a record-setting $840 billion defense authorization bill that would guide the U.S. military’s reorientation within NATO and elsewhere, but first lawmakers must agree whether to include dozens of proposed amendments with implications for several domestic and foreign policy priorities.

The legislation, considered one of the few “must-pass” measures each year, is a regular forum for policy disputes that, in some cases, are peripheral to national security. This year’s bill attracted more than 1,200 proposed amendments from House members, shattering levels of interest seen in previous cycles and earning rare public rebukes from the House Armed Services Committee’s top Democrat and Republican.

“If it doesn’t help the warfighter,” Rep. Mike D. Rogers (R-Ala.) admonished his colleagues this week, “it doesn’t need to be in this bill.”

In recent years, apart from directing the Pentagon’s annual funding, the National Defense Authorization Act, or NDAA, has ordered the renaming of select military bases to dissociate those facilities from their Confederate heritage and instituted paid family leave for all federal workers.

The proposals under consideration this year focus on matters as diverse as expediting military health initiatives to surging capacity to process visas for Afghans left behind during last year’s harried evacuation; as timely as tracking security assistance to Ukraine and cracking down on Russia’s ability to participate in international forums; and as mundane as requiring that all flags and flowers displayed in Defense Department facilities are American-made.

The list also is notable for the many measures that were floated but ultimately excluded, such as Republican-backed efforts to dismantle the military’s coronavirus vaccine requirements and de-prioritize initiatives targeting extremism in the ranks, and competing proposals from both sides of the aisle to regulate how the military navigates abortion after the Supreme Court’s ruling striking down Roe v. Wade.

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In many cases, the House Rules Committee — which dictates procedures for floor debates — opted for less-controversial substitutes. Instead of amendments regarding abortion, for example, its members allowed for debate on launching a pilot program to address unwanted pregnancy and other reproductive health measures.

But the floor debate, which began Wednesday, is expected to feature some friction. The amendment list includes, for instance, measures to strip up to $100 billion from the overall cost of the defense bill.

Another proposal would allow Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin to boost “inflation bonus pay” for service members earning $45,000 per year or less on top of a 2.4 percent pay hike to account for hardships facing military families as economists fear the United States is on the cusp of a recession. Both would come in addition to a 4.6 percent general pay raise already in the bill and such competing ventures could split the House — and not necessarily along party lines.

There is also the potential for political fallout around proposals that seek to condition U.S. security assistance for certain countries on meeting benchmarks, including human rights. The House is poised to consider limiting assistance to the Philippines for that reason, precluding the sale of F-16s to Turkey over its conduct toward Greece, and pausing arms sales to Saudi Arabia over the killing of journalist and Washington Post contributor Jamal Khashoggi.

And passionate disagreement is possible over a subset of amendments related to recreational drugs and other controlled substances, as the House is poised to vote as part of the NDAA on whether to expand banking access for cannabis businesses, and allow ecstasy and certain psychedelics to be used as alternatives to prescription opioids in military medicine.

There is likely to be robust bipartisan support, however, for measures pertaining to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, including amendments demanding reports and other measures to better account for U.S. weapons flowing into the country. Other proposals call for policy statements or expressions from Congress that Russia should never be allowed to rejoin organizations like the G-7 and should be compelled to release Russian political prisoners like Alexei Navalny and Vladimir Kara-Murza.

Two high-profile Americans being held in Russia, Brittney Griner and Paul Whelan, are not mentioned by name in the defense bill or any proposed amendments.

There is likely to be bipartisan support for measures seeking to urgently enhance the Pentagon’s ability to defend against enemy drones, and shore up cybersecurity and satellite systems, alongside investments in other technological advancements.

“The Pentagon,” said House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam Smith (D-Wash.), “is not typically good at moving fast.”

The amendment list includes some familiar ideas that have earned House backing in previous years but failed to garner the Senate’s approval. Those include efforts to repeal long-standing authorizations for use of military force passed in 2002 and 1991 to authorize hostilities against Iraq. They also include a measure to grant the mayor of Washington the authority to call up National Guard personnel in times of emergency, power that all state governors possess.

It also includes measures to build upon recent changes. One amendment would commission a report on how the Defense Department has reflected the contributions of Black Americans in its naming practices for military facilities. Another would guarantee that service members complaining of harassment or discrimination will have their cases heard within 180 days or be free pursue their claims in civilian court. Others target post-traumatic stress and mental health conditions affecting service members and veterans.

The House’s expected endorsement of its defense bill will be a significant step in the process, but not the final word on how the Pentagon’s funds will be directed.

The Senate has yet to schedule a vote on its version of the bill, which, once passed, will have to be reconciled with the House’s version and approved by both chambers.

The final legislation also could be limited by congressional appropriators. The House’s proposed defense appropriation bill for fiscal 2023, which begins Oct. 1 and has yet to receive a floor vote, envisions a $762 billion budget for the Pentagon and military — about $78 billion less than what the defense bill currently under consideration would authorize.

The appropriations bill also wades into matters the authorization bill avoids, such as abortion. The defense spending bill would guarantee that service members could not be denied the right to take leave for the purposes of having an abortion or assisting a partner’s efforts to obtain an abortion. The authorization bill is silent on that subject.

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