The National Defense Authorization is the bill that sets policy for the Pentagon. This massive piece of legislation sets the table for the defense appropriations bill that actually gives the Pentagon the cash for the fiscal year. Typically, the authorization bill enjoys bipartisan support and is signed into law each year – for more than 50 years running, the House and Senate Armed Services Committees are quick to point out. This makes it unusual in the Washington echo chamber that has developed in the last five years where important legislation languishes for lack of political will to pass it. (Transportation legislation, raising the debt ceiling, etc, ad nauseum.)
The fact that the defense authorization bill will reliably become law makes it a magnet for non-germane issues like last year when Department of Interior land swaps and a commemorative coin for the National Park Service found their way into the bill. So I was pleasantly surprised to find these shenanigans weren’t repeated in the fiscal year 2016 version of the bill.
But that doesn’t mean there aren’t hijinks in other defense related bills. In particular, an issue that arose in the fiscal year 2016 military construction appropriations bill was the idea of funding overseas military construction in the Overseas Contingency Operations account. This is a ridiculous budget dodge to pretend that, among other things, a Navy aircraft hangar is somehow eligible for funding from the “contingency” account simply because it is being built overseas. Reps. Mick Mulvaney, R-S.C., and Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., offered a bi-partisan floor amendment to strip the money from the military construction bill and it lost by only 20 votes.
But despite that defeat on the floor, I was pleased to see these military construction projects were not authorized in the overseas contingency portion of the defense authorization bill. Unfortunately, in the last 15 years budgetary discipline has broken down to such a degree that even programs that have not been authorized can still spend whatever money is appropriated for them. This is a serious deterioration of proper Congressional budget process and, unfortunately, cedes far too much power to the appropriations committees. But that’s the topic for another column.
For now, I’ll take the paltry few wins I can find in this year’s defense authorization bill – no land swaps, no commemorative coins for other federal agencies, and no approval of overseas contingency operations funds for routine overseas military construction. Unfortunately, there are also plenty of losses for sound federal fiscal policy in this bill. According to the White House Press Secretary, the president will veto the bill over the massive increase in authorized overseas contingency spending that is being used to evade the budget caps set by the Budget Control Act of 2011. (Truth be told, the president isn’t fond of the caps either, he just wants to break them in the base budget for both defense and non-defense discretionary spending.)
As I mentioned in last week’s column, this year has seen a massive breakdown in the normal appropriations process, which has made for greater pressure than normal to pass the defense authorization. That way there will at least be a Pentagon policy bill even if the government is actually funded by a full-year continuing resolution.
So, stay tuned. If the president does veto the defense authorization bill , and the Congress can’t override that veto, we’re back to square one.