WITH THE end of 2013 rapidly approaching, Congress has an opportunity to rise above a year of massive dysfunction and prevent major disruptions in U.S. defense operations. The leaders of the Senate and House armed services committees have managed to fashion a bipartisan version of the annual National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), which became stuck on the Senate floor before the Thanksgiving recess. It’s a decent compromise that the leaders of both chambers ought to embrace and bring to a vote in the coming days.
A failure to do so would be a new political low for this Congress. The NDAA has been passed for 51 consecutive years, even when much of the rest of government had to make do with temporary authorities. But much more than political symbolism is at issue. Though defense funding ultimately must be provided by appropriators, the authorization bill extends vital Pentagon authorities and sanctions new operations.
If no bill is approved by Jan. 1, combat pay and bonuses for U.S. troops in Afghanistan and elsewhere would be suspended; work on major weapons systems, including a new aircraft carrier, would be halted at considerable cost; and support for the Afghan army and the disposal of Syria’s chemical weapons would be interrupted at a critical moment.
The bill also contains important measures to combat sexual crimes in the military and advance the closure of the Guantanamo Bay prison. Though a proposal we favored by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), providing for the prosecution of sex crimes outside the military chain of command, was not included — and did not receive a Senate vote — some three dozen other reforms in the legislation would make the punishment of these crimes more likely while providing more protections to victims.
Similarly, the compromise bill continues Congress’s counterproductive ban on the transfer of foreign detainees from Guantanamo to prisons or courts on the U.S. mainland. But it contains an important amendment by Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.) that would make it easier for the administration to transfer detainees who have been approved for return to their home countries — a group that constitutes about half of the prison’s remaining population.
Other measures in the bill ought to attract broad bipartisan support. The effects on defense of the so-called sequester would be eased by transferring money to operations and training from less essential accounts, such as construction and staffing in office headquarters. The Pentagon is still vulnerable to a $50 billion sequester cut in January unless a separate budget deal can head it off. But passage of the authorization act would prevent the worst disruptions of ongoing operations.
Normally legislation like this would quickly attract leadership support, but House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) has yet to commit to bringing the bill to the floor of his chamber, where the process must begin. He may worry about a rank-and-file revolt; there is also pressure from senators who wish to attach additional amendments, including a controversial new sanctions measure against Iran. Mr. Boehner should move forward: He should not allow this to become the first year in a half-century when Congress did not provide for the national defense.