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Congress OKs $770B defense spending bill. Here’s what’s in it, and what’s not

The U.S. Capitol Building in Washington, D.C. (Dreamstime/TNS)
December 16, 2021

The Senate passed a crucial defense spending bill Wednesday that now heads to President Joe Biden’s desk for his signature.

The 2022 National Defense Authorization Act, a roughly $770 billion package to fund national defense programs and set the policy agenda at the Department of Defense, passed the Senate 89-10. It cleared the House earlier this month in a 363-70 vote.

The legislation provides $740 billion for the Pentagon and gives $25 billion to increase Biden’s first defense budget request. The bill, which Congress takes up each year, also sets the policy agenda for the Defense Department and other agencies.

Additionally, it would include nearly $28 billion for nuclear weapons programs and provides a 2.7% pay increase for Defense Department civilian employees and military service members.

Behind-the-scenes negotiations were the cause of several provisions to be nixed or scaled back, including women being required to register for the Selective Service and an expansive overhaul to the military’s justice system.

Changing military justice system

A provision in the legislation would strip authority from military commanders to prosecute sex offenses, a move victims’ advocates have sought for more than a decade because the Pentagon has failed to stem sexual assault among the ranks.

The measure would task independent military lawyers with prosecuting sexual assault cases. That would remove the authority that commanders, who are typically not lawyers, have in making decisions on charging and trying their own troops.

Military leaders have pledged for decades to address the scourge of sexual assaults. The Pentagon’s latest comprehensive survey on sexual assault found an estimated 20,500 instances of unwanted sexual contact in 2018, an increase over the 14,900 estimated in the last major survey in 2016. The military’s definition of unwanted sexual contact ranges from groping to rape.

The bill makes sexual harassment a crime in the Uniform Code of Military Justice for the first time, with a bill summary stating that “All claims of sexual harassment will be required to be investigated by an independent investigator outside of the chain of command.”

But the provision included is not as comprehensive as one championed by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., whose proposal would have gone further in restricting the authority of commanders to prosecute a range of offenses and would have created teams of independent military prosecutors with discretion to charge 38 serious crimes, including murder, kidnapping and sexual assault.

Her proposal also would have removed commanders’ authority to convene courts and to create the pool of potential jurors. The measure that passed doesn’t do either.

Selective Service

An amendment that would have required women ages 18 to 25 to register for the Selective Service, alongside men, was stripped from the legislation.

The provision, which was included in earlier versions of the defense bill, would have amended the Military Selective Service Act to require registration by women for Selective Service and thus any future drafts. The government uses that program to create and maintain a list of men to draw from in case of a national emergency that would require rapid expansion of the armed forces.

Expanding the Selective Service to include women has gained momentum since all combat roles were opened up to women.

The amendment to include women in the draft had robust bipartisan support in both the House and Senate, but was stripped out in the final days of closed-door negotiations amid fears it could imperil passage of the underlying legislation, according to an aide familiar with the negotiations who spoke to USA TODAY on the condition of anonymity.

Afghanistan war

The legislation establishes a “multi-year independent Afghanistan War Commission” to examine the war in Afghanistan from 2001 to 2021 and the United States’ withdrawal in August, when the Biden administration pulled troops from the country.

The final days of the war were chaotic, with a suicide attack killing 13 Americans and the Taliban sweeping back into power two decades after being routed by U.S. forces. Biden’s execution of the withdrawal has drawn wide criticism.

A summary of the legislation says the goal of the commission is to give “recommendations and lessons learned.” The commission would focus on the equipment left in the region, plans to evacuate any Americans and allies still there, and the United States’ ability to counter terrorism.

China, Taiwan and Russia

The legislation includes $7.1 billion to beef up the U.S. position against China for the Pacific Deterrence Initiative and directs Biden to develop a “Grand Strategy with Respect to China.”

It also directs the Defense Department to put together reports on China and its activities, including modernization technologies, security developments and the military.

The legislation authorizes $4 billion for the European Deterrence Initiative, which aims to discourage Russian aggression in Europe.

On Taiwan, the bill includes a “statement of policy” that says the U.S. will “resist a fait accompli” against the country and maintain military capacity.

Iraq War resolution

The legislation does not contain a repeal of the nearly 2-decade-old war resolution that paved the way for the U.S. military invasion of Iraq.

The provision passed the House earlier this year and the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

That’s despite Senate Democratic leadership vowing to take up the measure and the White House also endorsing it.

The 2002 measure authorized then-President George W. Bush to “use the Armed Forces of the United States as he determines to be necessary and appropriate in order to … defend the national security of the United States against the continuing threat posed by Iraq.” The resolution has long been controversial because the Bush administration argued at the time that Saddam Hussein’s regime was hiding weapons of mass destruction, an assertion that turned out to be wrong.

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