James Carafano: Defense bill in trouble thanks to partisan political games and posturing

This week, the House of Representatives will finalize its version of the annual National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA)—the bill that establishes how much we will invest in our military and the policies that direct how the Pentagon spends that money. Odds are good that the lower chamber will make a mess of it—and set the stage for a historic failure.

Since the Cold War, when lawmakers first started writing NDAAs, Congress has compiled a great track record. Year after year, it has hammered out a defense authorization, regardless of how contentious the political infighting raged under the dome of the Capitol.


In some years, the partisan rancor was so bad, the two parties couldn’t agree on a budget or pass new appropriations bills. Instead, they resorted to “continuing resolutions” that merely carried over the previous year’s spending levels to the new fiscal year. But even in those years, lawmakers were able to put aside the partisan vitriol and agree to a national policy for defense.

Now, unfortunately, that record run of achievement may be broken.

That should be unthinkable. The Constitution charges the federal government with a sacred duty: to provide for the common defense. And there’s certainly no shortage of threats that demand a strong common defense.

Iran is acting up. China is on the march. Kim is watching. Putin is waiting to pounce. This is not the time for Congress to put political posturing ahead of national security. Yet there is evidence that the NDAA is in deep trouble.

Item one: A possibly insurmountable partisan divide in the House. Historically, lawmakers have been able to come together, work through their differences and hammer out an NDAA both parties can support. The good news is: that’s exactly what happened in the Senate. Two weeks ago, the upper chamber passed its version of the NDAA with strong, bi-partisan support. The vote was 86-6. That bi-partisan spirit is conspicuously lacking in the House, however. Two weeks ago, the House Armed Services Committee passed out its version of the bill on a highly partisan vote. Only two Republicans backed the committee’s vision.

Several amendments would direct the Pentagon to shift even more of its attention, resources, and money to battling climate change rather improving readiness to protect America from its adversaries.  

Item two: Divisive amendments ahead. This week the House version of the NDAA moves to the floor, where members can propose changes. At last count, more than 650 amendments were filed and hoping for action. Many include the most divisive policies imaginable—like the amendment that would block the Defense Department from helping secure the border. If partisan poison pills like that are added to the bill, it’s becomes far less likely that House and Senate conferees can iron out the differences between the two chambers’ bills. And if those kinds of provisions were somehow to survive the conference negotiations, there’s little doubt that a presidential veto would ensue.

Item three: Less bang for the military buck. Many proposed amendments would actually give us less defense, not more. For instance, several would direct the Pentagon to shift even more of its attention, resources, and money to battling climate change rather improving readiness to protect America from its adversaries.

Item four: Anti-nuke fever. Some in Congress seem determined to undermine the efficacy of America’s nuclear deterrent. One amendment would delay the replacement of the Minuteman nuclear-armed ballistic missile. Congressionally mandated studies have shown that it would be far cheaper to field a new, more capable system than to extend the life of the Minuteman (a system already 50 years old). Yet an amendment in the queue would demand yet more “study” before moving forward. This isn’t about saving money. It is about finding a way ensure our nuclear arsenal becomes obsolete, so that later they can argue to just scrap it all together.


Item five: A significant top-line gap. There is what looks like an insurmountable gulf between what the Senate and House would authorize for an annual defense budget. The Senate bill would provide funding at the level identified by the bipartisan National Defense Strategy Commission as what’s needs to preserve military readiness and modernize our forces. The House falls more than $13 billion short of the mark.

Partisan wrangling is business-as-usual in Washington, but Congress has traditionally risen above politics when it comes to national security. If the House fails to discipline itself and agree to a responsible NDAA, it would break a 58-year run of providing for the national defense, marking an end to business-as-usual and the beginning of a new era—that of a completely dysfunctional legislature.