Vote Notes: The National Defense Authorization Act
Under the category of catching up, last week the House voted on H.R. 2810, the 2018 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). I voted for the bill, and it passed 344 to 81. More than anything, it represents a vision statement on the configuration of our military, and given its importance, my bias is to support these bills when I can.
This is not to say I didn't have reservations. As is the case with most large authorization bills, there is a mix of good and bad, and accordingly, I would like to explain my reasoning on this bill.
The sequester has disproportionately affected our military. It was, in fact, viewed as a nuclear budget tool that was never to be used. But it was, and there has been real effect. Accordingly, this bill would allow for 42,100 more active-duty troops, 8,800 more reserve troops, and 12,900 additional members of our National Guard compared to last year’s NDAA. Troop levels across the military were reduced 7% each year between 2013 and 2016, leaving the Air Force at its smallest size in decades and the Marine Corps with troop levels that were described by the Marine Corp Commandant last year as crossing the “red line.” The boost to troop levels included in this bill will bolster readiness and ensure that the military does not have to rely so heavily on Reserve forces in the event of a new conflict. This is significant, given the way in which the operations tempo in many units has affected recruitment and reenlistment.
There is a much larger question to be asked in why we deploy some of these troops to the places that we do, but given we are still asking them to go - we should not force families apart for multiple deployments over short periods as our way of getting there.
An additional component of harm to our military rests in the way that unfinished congressional budgets and the sequester have derailed a number of much needed modernization projects. This bill attempts to bring greater stability and predictability to the process. This is true for desperate weaponization programs that stretch from disparate programs like the Army’s fleet of Abrams tanks, Air Force maintenance facilities to service the new F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, or even things like the THADD and Aegis missile systems.
This bill also focuses on space. Your strength always comes with accompanying weakness. And given America’s absolute dominance in using things like GPS to target weapons and troop movements, our adversaries and competitors have increasingly focused on space as a point of vulnerability. Donald Rumsfeld tried to add focus to our military here, but 9/11 came along...and it has been deferred over the ensuing years.
Finally, this bill said nothing about a new Authorized Use of Military Force (AUMF) for the war on terror, which was disappointing. Our military is still operating under the AUMF passed more than 15 years ago in the wake of September 11, 2001. This is an issue that I have called attention to several times in the past, most recently by becoming the first and only Republican cosponsor of H.J.Res. 100, offered by Congressman Adam Schiff, which would replace the old AUMF with a new one focused specifically on defeating Al-Qaeda, the Taliban, and the various branches of the Islamic State. Thanks to an amendment offered by Congressman Tom Cole, this bill now requires the President to submit a new plan for defeating those groups to Congress within thirty days of the bill’s enactment. I firmly believe the current AUMF does not provide such authority, which I expect this analysis will eventually confirm.
As for my concerns, the biggest was over how this bill might affect our budget deficits for the next few years. This bill authorizes a $65 billion spending increase above the existing cap on base defense spending. The bill also authorized $74.6 of Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) spending.
We continue to spend more than the combination of a host of competitors, and better spending what we have will be part of the process that ideally comes with the more systematic approach outlined in this bill. We can't have start and stop on weapon systems and have efficiency.
This said, how we pay for this increase in defense spending above the existing caps has been the main snag holding up negotiations over the House Budget Resolution for 2018. I believe it still has a long way to go.
In an effort to improve the bill, I did offer a few amendments. The first, which was adopted, would require the National Guard to track the total cost of flyover missions at large public events. Currently, the military only notes the cost of fuel used in these missions. In reality, however, there are other costs, for things like maintenance and personnel. These missions are paid for out of the National Guard’s training budget.
Another amendment I offered would have ensured that men and women in the military are subjected to the exact same physical performance standards for a particular job. Women perform a host of very important functions in our military. Their role in no way should be diminished. But for the elite combat teams, like SEAL Team 6, unit cohesion is in part based on whether or not I really believe you can carry me out if I’m wounded. If I weigh 220 pounds as a man and you weigh 120 pounds as a woman, I don’t want gender norming to drive your ability to participate in the unit, if that gender norming means that I am going to be left behind if shot. The House Rules Committee decided not to make this amendment in order...or in other words, it decided that the amendment could not proceed to the floor for debate or a vote. Normally, the Rules Committee will do this when it feels an amendment is too controversial.
Finally, I decided to withdraw an amendment that I offered last year on this same bill. My amendment would have undone a provision that severely limits the selection of running shoes available to new military recruits. I still believe this is very important, but in fairness to the process we began with my amendment debate last year, I am willing to give the process a little more time.
More specifically, when the provision was created last year, there was one only shoe company (New Balance) that could fulfill the provision’s requirements, creating a de facto earmark. The provision required that recruits be given shoes that are made of components that come from within the United States. Shoes are not military secrets. We should give recruits choice in things that matter to their training. Prior to last year, new military recruits were allowed to purchase their own running shoes from a wide variety of choices, and soon they may just have just one.
While this may not seem like a big issue, switching from the cash voucher system that allows recruits to pick the shoe that fits them will cost taxpayers hundred of millions of dollars a year, and multiple studies conducted by the military, (including a 2014 study in which the Army monitored the running habits of more than 1,000 lieutenants) have shown that as running shoe options decrease, injuries increase.
Although I feel strongly about this issue, I ultimately decided to withdraw the amendment to give my colleagues on the House Armed Service committee an opportunity to fix the problem created by last year’s bill. Although my amendment didn’t pass last year, it did at least result in the implementation of a two-year moratorium on enactment, so more competition and choices can be brought into the mix. If it appears there may still be a lack of serious competition going forward, I plan to re-offer my amendment, perhaps as soon as when the House considers the military funding bill.
Besides my own amendments, there were a number of other amendments considered that I’ll run through in another post, so stay tuned.