A massive defense policy bill authorizing a 2.6 percent pay raise for servicemembers — the largest in nearly a decade — along with higher troop levels could win final congressional passage this summer, experts said Tuesday.
The House and Senate have each passed its version of the measure, known as the National Defense Authorization Act, and it now heads to a conference committee where lawmakers will hash out differences in the plan and come up with a final version. Both versions authorize the pay raises, troop level increases, purchases of aircraft, ships, submarines and weapons and a series of new policy initiatives.
With a spending deal lifting budget caps already in place, midterm elections this fall and a more experienced administration, lawmakers are poised to pass the 2019 NDAA earlier and in smoother fashion this year.
“There’s an excellent chance they could get it done this summer,” said Mark Cancian, a senior adviser with the Washington think tank Center for Strategic and International Studies. “There’s not lots of major issues and they are very cognizant that there are elections and they want to get it done before elections. … There will be a lot of incentive this summer.”
On Monday evening, the Senate passed its version of the NDAA, which directs policy and spending plans for the Defense Department, in a vote of 85 to 10. Last month, the House passed its version in a vote of 351 to 66.
The legislation, with its large margins of passage in both chambers, is “veto proof,” meaning even an objection from President Donald Trump is unlikely to derail the measure, said Andrew Sherbo, a University of Denver finance professor who has tracked government and defense budget issues.
“These are majorities,” with 89 percent in the Senate and 84 percent in the House voting in support of the measure, Sherbo said. “Rare bipartisan support ensures passage.”
However, the NDAA still needs companion legislation that actually appropriates the funding and there are threats from the White House that it could face roadblock and a government shutdown if Trump doesn’t get money for a southern border wall.
More military spending
With both chambers of Congress agreeing on several key measures of the defense bill, it makes efforts to boost pay, programs and benefits close to a sure thing to win passage out of congressional conference committee, experts said.
Earlier this year, a deal to lift budget caps for two years allowed Congress to increase spending for defense to $716 billion for 2018. Estimates are the 2019 NDAA is just under $710 billion.
“This year you are getting pretty close to what they call regular order,” Cancian said of the process. “Last year you had a new administration and a lot of things were delayed … so this is pretty close to regular — the way Congress would like to get business done. The budget agreement has been helpful.”
In recent months, House and Senate committees held dozens of hearings to discuss the 2019 spending and policy priorities for each of the service branches as well as a wide-ranging list of challenges facing the military.
The effort appears to build on momentum to grow the size and might of the military in response to China and Russia’s growing capabilities as laid out in Trump’s $686.1 billion defense budget proposed earlier this year. Trump’s proposal was poised to get a receptive response on Capitol Hill with a deal already in place to bust budget caps and a Congress invested in military improvements during an election year. The request for fiscal year 2019, which begins Oct. 1, included an increase of more than 15,000 active-duty troops.
The House and Senate versions of NDAA have relatively minor differences that should be settled easily in conference, Cancian said.
Both versions also expand efforts to combat military-related child abuse and sexual misconduct among its ranks.
The Senate version seems to take a more aggressive stance than the House NDAA on issues such as reforming the “up or out” military promotion system, addressing opioid addiction among military servicemembers and veterans, and tackling the sexual misconduct, abuse and domestic violence concerns. For example, the Senate proposal would make domestic violence a crime under the Uniformed Crime Military Justice, or UCMJ, a complaint raised in several Senate committee hearings this past year.
“My guess is it will do pretty well,” Cancian said.
With midterm elections approaching that could shift party control in Congress, the House and Senate versions of the NDAA steered away from many issues that otherwise might have held up the legislation.
Among them, the legislation avoids Base Realignment and Closure, or BRAC, to close inefficient military facilities and doesn’t impose a rash of new requirements related to the Pentagon’s first ongoing audit. It also directs a large share of funding to the war fund, also known as the Overseas Contingency Operations.
“In a lot of ways what stands out in both bills is how they don’t make tough choices,” said Mandy Smithberger, a director at the Center for Defense Information for the Project On Government Oversight, a nonpartisan government watchdog group. “They continue to dodge BRAC, only ask for reporting on making progress on a financial audit, and continue to abuse OCO for various pet projects.”
The Senate bill notably only funds one Littoral Combat Ship, while the House funds an additional two against Navy protests, Smithberger adds.
Meanwhile, the House NDAA pushes a number of reforms and spending cuts of the so-called “Fourth Estate,” dozens of DOD agencies that entail civilian oversight.
“Fortunately the Senate rejected a number of those ideas, which we think would increase costs to taxpayers and decrease combat effectiveness,” Smithberger said.
Among the biggest stumbling blocks, experts said, is a measure that would reverse a White House effort to come to the aid of giant Chinese telecommunications firm ZTE.
The Senate version “has a ban on U.S. firms selling to Chinese firm ZTE and Trump doesn’t want the sales ban,” Sherbo said. The House version “has no sales ban on ZTE” and it’s not even mentioned.
The goal is to resolve the differences and reach an agreement by the end of July, in time for Congress to take its summer recess, Sherbo said.
“It’s notable that the White House didn’t put out a meaningful statement of administration policy ahead of the Senate vote. … It’s extremely unusual for a White House not to comment or try to shape the contents of a must-pass defense policy bill,” Smithberger said. But “since the bill passed with a veto-proof majority in the Senate, the White House may not have the leverage necessary to defeat it.”
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