CAPITOL HILL – One of the most consequential bills on the House of Representatives calendar each year, the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), got a thorough hearing over three days last week before ultimately passing 344-81 on Friday.
“This bill is the vehicle by which we usually, for 55 years at least, fulfill our responsibilities under the Constitution that I mentioned, to provide for the common defense. I believe that’s the first job of the federal government,” said Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-Texas-13), chairman of the House Armed Services Committee. “It is fundamentally wrong to send men and women out on dangerous missions without providing them the best equipment, in the best shape, with the best training that our country can possibly provide.”
The NDAA for fiscal year (FY) 2018 authorizes $696 billion in defense spending, $28.5 billion more than the amount requested by President Donald Trump. Among the added expenditures are $7.9 billion in aviation readiness funds and $5.9 billion for the U.S. naval presence, as well as $2.5 billion for missile defense efforts. The bill increases funding for cyber operations by $1.7 billion and for U.S. Cyber Command by 16 percent.
The bill provides for the purchase of new military vehicles, planes and other equipment, as well as a 2.4 percent pay increase for troops. It also adds more oversight to service contracts, requiring more specificity and for the contracts to be submitted as part of the Department of Defense (DoD) budget process. The House version of the bill also includes the creation of a U.S. Space Corps, a new branch of the armed forces, with its own command. The corps would be responsible for “training and equipping for operations in space” and for “any future warfighting” in space, according to a House Armed Services Committee summary.
U.S. Rep. Anthony Brown (D-Md.-4) is a member of that committee, and agreed NDAA is an important piece of legislation.
“The United States faces serious security threats: aggression from North Korea and Russia, long and costly campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq, new battlefields in cyber space and in outer space. After years of sequestration, there is consensus, certainly in the House Armed Services Committee, that Congress must address readiness shortfalls and modernization challenges facing our military,” he said.
The bill includes more than $607 million for Maryland projects, including the construction of a new Presidential Aircraft Complex at Joint Base Andrews and Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START)-funded research at the University of Maryland.
It also includes an amendment Brown sponsored to increase funding for the DoD Historically Black Colleges and Universities/Minority Institutions program by $7 million above current levels and 54 percent more than Trump’s proposed funding. The program, set for $40 million in FY18, allows DoD to award grants for research and equipment to qualified institutions, with the goal of increasing diversity in the armed forces.
“By giving students and faculty the ability to work directly with military laboratories to develop skills in critical fields such as cyber security, we can further develop a pipeline of highly-skilled, diverse college graduates into the U.S. Armed Services. As new foreign and domestic threats emerge, we must continue to diversify our talent pool of innovators and researchers,” Brown said.
That amendment was passed on Thursday. On Wednesday, much of the discussion focused on other amendments, including one that would prohibit DoD to enter new biofuels contracts while sequestration is in place, a measure to cut Defense spending outside of military expenditures, and one to strike out a provision that prohibits the transfer of detainees from Guantanamo Bay (a military base set to close) to the U.S.
Sponsor Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.-10) said he felt the detention facility’s existence goes against American values, detentions cost taxpayer dollars, and the provision makes it harder to close the facility expeditiously.
“National security experts and our own military commanders agree that Guantanamo harms our national security by serving as a recruiting tool for terrorists and damaging our relationships with allies,” he said. “Furthermore... Guantanamo is now the most expensive prison on earth, costing U.S. taxpayers approximately $445 million per year. This is especially disappointing when you consider that each prisoner in a federal maximum security penitentiary costs only $76,000 a year.”
Opponents of the amendment, mostly Republicans, said it wasn’t safe to house the Guantanamo detainees in other facilities on U.S. soil.
“It is important to remember that most of the 41 remaining prisoners are very dangerous. The language of the underlying bill is required to keep our allies and the people of the United States safe,” said Rep. Bradley Byrne (R-Ala.-1).
The amendment ultimately failed.
Although the full NDAA passed the House, some members expressed concern that the Trump Administration does not have, in their opinion, a comprehensive strategy for dealing with the security threats facing the country. Brown also said that strategy needs to include diplomacy and efforts to support American troops once they return home.
“We need a smart, strategic approach to national security that incorporates an all-of-government approach. That means not only increasing defense spending, but also ensuring funding for the state department and USAID and reversing proposed cuts to non-defense programs that make the world more stable and secure,” he said.