Which of These Bills Is Not Like the Others? The Defense Budget

Testy and balky debate, like this year, still has ended with authorization for 57 straight years

Two U.S. army Blackhawk helicopters approach for landing at an airfield in Australia during a joint U.S. and Australian training exercise in July. (Ian Hitchcock/Getty Images File Photo)
Two U.S. army Blackhawk helicopters approach for landing at an airfield in Australia during a joint U.S. and Australian training exercise in July. (Ian Hitchcock/Getty Images File Photo)
Posted September 18, 2017 at 5:04am

For the uninitiated, it might have seemed last week like the annual legislation authorizing the nation’s military was about to come off the rails. And only now does it appear to be clamoring out of some thick mud — yet another example of a Congress so challenged when it comes to discharging even its most fundamental responsibilities.

Rest assured, though: There’s truly nothing more certain in the Capitol’s life cycle than enactment of the annual National Defense Authorization Act.

Every year, there are committee shouting matches, filibuster threats, poison pill amendments, lengthy negotiating standoffs, slammed telephones and veto vows — drama no different from what ultimately sinks so many other important legislative efforts, and plenty of routine bills as well. But every year, a defense authorization bill somehow survives to become law.

This has happened an astonishing 57 consecutive times — without fail since Congress dictated that, starting in 1961, separate legislative permission would need to be given before any money could be allocated for planes, missiles, ships or other military hardware.

That’s way more than twice as long as the record for consecutive wins the Cleveland Indians set last week. Nothing else even close to a similar mark for consistent achievement exists on Capitol Hill, making the defense policy bill the exception that proves the rule about how reflexive combativeness and nearsighted partisan polarization have neutered legislative functioning.

The bipartisan political imperative to be seen as promoting a strong national defense, or at least not standing in the way of “the troops,” combined with the spare-no-expense lobbying efforts of the military-industrial complex, have been sufficient to propel the bill not just through the final three decades of the Cold War, but also during the “peace dividend” of the 1990s and during the myriad global tensions since the 9/11 attacks.

And although this continues to be an exceptionally fraught and unpredictable year in Washington — with President Donald Trump figuring out new ways to upend political convention almost daily — there is no reason to believe the NDAA streak is going to be broken now.

Following almost two months of fits and starts, and after a looming logjam was busted last week, the Senate is set to pass its bill Monday, setting up negotiations on a rash of differences with the House.

The McCain factor

One reason to bet heavily on the negotiations coming to fruition for at least another year: The enormous personal investment in a positive outcome that’s being made by one of the Senate’s own top-flight disrupters, who’s also one of the president’s tartest critics among fellow Republicans.

Now in his third year as chairman of the Armed Services Committee, responsibility for shepherding the bill falls to Arizona’s John McCain, who turned 81 last month and is undergoing chemotherapy and radiation for what he terms “a very virulent” form of brain cancer.

When his grave diagnosis was announced in late July, colleagues started coalescing behind a plan to show McCain some deference by debating and passing the defense bill in a few hours, perhaps without any amendments. That push to accommodate him fell apart, however, once he cast the deciding vote against the health care repeal-and-replace legislation. Some infuriated fellow Republicans reversed course and said they’d insist on full-bore deliberations for defense proposals, prompting the leadership to shelve the bill until the fall so McCain could return home to Arizona for treatment.

Having returned to Washington, and under the temporary care of oncologists at the National Institutes of Health in suburban Maryland, McCain has watched colleagues revert to customary form: They spent six days spinning their wheels in desultory debate on his bill while voting on just a single substantive amendment — Wednesday’s 61-36 vote scuttling a proposal by GOP Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky to include language McCain cannot abide.

It would have repealed the 2001 authorization for the use of military force, enacted to combat the 9/11 perpetrators but used since to justify dozens of other armed interventions, and given Congress six months to write a new framework for military involvement abroad. Just two other Republicans were with Paul, along with 33 from the Democratic conference.

Behind the scenes, though, jockeying continued intently over hundreds of potential amendments, many of which have the potential to dramatically complicate the defense bill. While plenty of them would dictate changes in weapons procurement or alter defense personnel policy, plenty more are wholly unconnected to the workings of the Pentagon — sponsors hoping their proposals, often creating schisms within each party on some of the hottest-button issues of the day, might catch a ride on the must-pass measure.

An 84-9 vote on Thursday prohibits debate on proposals unrelated to defense, such as the idea of boosting government efforts to combat cyberhacking of election infrastructure.

That cloture vote also cast doubt on the fortunes of several of the most contentious possible amendments. Perhaps the most prominent would do away with the limits on defense and nondefense spending, imposed four years ago, and the across-the-board “sequestration” cuts that are supposed to happen when the caps get breeched, imposed in the name of rough fiscal discipline but never really carried out.

Other amendments would bolster “buy American” requirements in defense contracting; expand the Pentagon’s involvement in medical research; bar the indefinite detention of American citizens on U.S. soil; prevent the dismissals of transgender people from the military; and shield from deportation anyone in uniform who was brought into the country illegally as a child.  

Getting involved

The bill, the House version of which sailed through with 344 votes in July, is largely a reflection of McCain’s robustly interventionist view of the United States’ role in the world  — one of the many ways the 2008 Republican presidential nominee sees things so differently from the Republican who became president this year. The Senate bill would authorize about $700 billion for defense in the coming year, almost $40 billion more than what Trump proposes, in part because McCain would dedicate funding to several things the president has shied away from including space-based missile defenses, weapons for Ukraine and aid to help Baltic countries “deter Russian aggression.”

How quickly the coming negotiations are completed will depend largely on how involved the Trump administration gets in the details.

It could take a while, with late-blooming disagreements postponing a final deal until December. The bill has been one of the last things Congress got done before going home for the holidays in five of the past 10 years.

In that time alone, the roster of divisive issues that eventually got smoothed over provides a glimpse of the defense measure’s unique survivability: The future of the prison for terrorism suspects at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba; training and equipping the Syrian rebels; the chain of command’s reliability in prosecuting military sexual assaults; the rights of gays and lesbians to serve openly in uniform; Iran sanctions; the ability of women in the services to obtain abortions; requirements for renewable energy sources to power the military; and the broadening of laws to combat hate crimes.

And that’s not to mention limitations on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and disagreements over what multibillion-dollar weapon systems to buy — and how fast.

The law prescribing an annual authorization bill was pushed by leaders of the Armed Services panels, who hoped to thereby recapture a measure of authority over defense programs and policies they felt they had lost to the Appropriations committees.

The consistency of completion has not been matched by any consistency in the grand total. The first iteration, signed by John F. Kennedy six months into his presidency, came in at $14 billion — even in today’s dollars, less than one-sixth the size of what’s now under debate.