The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Backroom defense bill lets dictators and kleptocrats off the hook

Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) participates in a news conference on Capitol Hill on Nov. 16. (Michael Reynolds/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)

The most important national security legislation of the year has just been mismanaged so badly, it could end up letting some international bad guys escape accountability for some pretty horrible abuses and crimes. Democrats and Republicans are pointing fingers at one another, but there is plenty of blame to go around.

There’s always some drama on Capitol Hill surrounding the end-of-year consideration of the National Defense Authorization Act, Congress’s annual defense policy legislation, because it is considered a “must-pass” bill. But this year, congressional dysfunction surrounding the defense bill hit a depressing new low. Even though various committees spent months crafting and debating provisions, the process got derailed. Running out of time, the staffs of the leaders of the House and Senate armed services and foreign affairs committees met secretly over the past couple of weeks, wrote a bill of their own, and released it to the rest of the Congress as a fait accompli.

The new National Defense Authorization Act that the House approved on Tuesday was released only six hours before the vote. The Senate is now set to pass it as soon as this week with no chance to debate or amend it. Both parties are celebrating the higher defense budget authorization numbers. Conservatives brag that provisions such as adding women to the draft were dropped.

But looking at the 670-page summary, the new version is missing several important items that had broad, bipartisan support but were cut at the last moment with no explanation. Those include measures to hold autocrats and kleptocrats accountable for human rights abuses and crimes.

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Republicans blame Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) for not giving the defense bill its traditional week or two of floor time so amendments could be aired and voted on.

“Senator Schumer knew what bills were coming due, he should have seen this backlog coming, and he should have planned better,” Sen. James M. Inhofe (Okla.), the ranking Republican on the Armed Services Committee, told me. “This is mismanagement, plain and simple, and the responsibility rests with him.”

The backroom negotiations process was so opaque that most members of Congress had no idea what was going on. When the final bill was released, many provisions already passed in the House’s version had disappeared. Among the measures lost were five out of six provisions related to fighting corruption abroad.

Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) told me that during the convoluted private negotiations process, Republicans blocked two of his provisions related to fighting corruption — a reauthorization and reform of the Global Magnitsky Act, which sanctions human rights abusers, and the Combating Global Corruption Act, which would require reporting on corruption levels in other countries.

“It is a shame that, on the eve of the president’s democracy summit showcasing the battle against corruption, anti-corruption measures enjoying wide bipartisan support have been excised from the defense bill by individual Republicans in an irregular process,” Cardin told me.

Multiple lawmakers and staffers told me that the Biden administration was also quietly influencing the backroom negotiations over the bill. For example, the administration urged lawmakers to remove a bill that would have required them to simply evaluate whether 35 Russians connected to the imprisonment of opposition leader Alexei Navalny should be sanctioned, according to several congressional sources. The White House declined to comment.

Rep. Tom Malinowski (D-N.J.) told me that Republicans quietly blocked several Saudi-related measures that were already passed by the House from ending in the new defense bill. Among them were the Saudi Arabia Accountability for Gross Violations of Human Rights Act, which previously passed the House 405-7, and the Jamal Khashoggi Press Freedom Accountability Act, which seeks to prevent attacks on journalists.

“There was overwhelming support for these human rights measures in the House and the Senate and they’ve been through regular order multiple times, including the ones on Saudi Arabia — yet a small group of Republicans in the Senate exercised a veto,” Malinowski said. “I guess for some people, protecting [Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman] is more important than protecting Americans, or than respecting a majority of the U.S. Congress.”

Lots of other important provisions were dropped from the House-passed version of the defense bill for one reason or another. They include a provision on combating Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad’s Captagon drug empire, a provision requiring a report on state-sanctioned harassment of U.S. citizens by the government of Egypt, and a provision to combat surveillance by foreign entities using advanced technology.

These are important issues that can’t wait another year to be addressed by our government. Even more troubling is that the U.S. Congress is showing the world — on the eve of President Biden’s democracy summit — that our system is broken. That undermines our broader argument at the worst possible time.

“It’s an insult to the American people that they have no transparency into what their government is doing,” a senior congressional staffer told me. “The Congress of the United States left its own members in the dark and came up with a backroom deal with the administration where they removed essential provisions that hold dictators and kleptocrats accountable, while they have absolutely no accountability themselves because nobody knows what the hell went on.”