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Congress looks to put its defense priorities on paper—again

The National Defense Authorization Act arrives at the Senate

Gen. Mark Milley testifies during a budget hearing for the Department of Defense on May 11. Associated Press/Photo by Jose Luis Magana

Congress looks to put its defense priorities on paper—again

Despite continuous partisan bickering in Congress, one bill has passed like clockwork for the past 61 years—the National Defense Authorization Act. The bill sets priorities and funding for the military and typically receives bipartisan support. It even survived a veto from former President Donald Trump in January 2021.

With conflicts in Ukraine playing out on the battlefield and continued tensions with China on the horizon, more people are watching this year’s bill than in prior years.

“I think the war in Ukraine has awakened people to the idea that war is not a thing of the distant past,” said Ret. Lt. Gen. Thomas Spoehr, the director of the Heritage Foundation’s Center for National Defense. “Even though we are in an election year and a lot of [representatives] are focused on what’s going on back in their states, I think there’s a renewed attention to national defense.”

Spoehr, who served for over 36 years in the U.S. Army and helped assemble spending plans at the Pentagon, explained the NDAA specifically funds the Department of Defense, not other branches of law enforcement like the intelligence agencies, and that makes it a politically difficult bill to oppose.

“It enjoys a goodwill that other federal departments like the State Department or Homeland Security don’t enjoy,” he said.

The House of Representatives passed the bill in July. Now it’s up to the Senate to decide what it wants to include in the package before bringing it to a vote. But with over 900 amendments on the table for consideration, the question is not so much whether it will become law, but rather what will be in it when it does. The amended version already looks very different from its House-passed predecessor.

The Senate’s version of the NDAA would provide $817 billion to the Pentagon and an additional $29 billion for national security programs within the Department of Energy. These appropriations include a 4.6 percent pay raise for service members and the DOD workforce to account for inflation.

When presenting the Senate’s amendments to the bill last week, Sen. Jack Reed, R-R.I., framed the NDAA as a direct response to a turbulent international theater.

“Beijing poses the primary potential threat to our national security as the only country in the world with the economic and technological capacity to mount a sustained challenge to our interest … Putin has demonstrated his willingness to inflict violence and undermine the global order,” Reed said.

He suggested that these challenges could not be met without investment in the U.S. armed forces.

In addition to funding technological advances across a wide range of military capabilities, the bill’s most notable area of investment is perhaps its strategic support of Taiwan. Congress has historically been more energetic in support of the self-governing island than the executive branch, dating back to the Taiwan Relations Act of 1979. At the time, President Jimmy Carter was trying to build relations with the rising geopolitical powerhouse of China, which claims to have authority over.

Recently, President Joe Biden said in a televised interview that the United States would come to the aid of Taiwan should China attack it. The NDAA would scale up the defense of the island before a conflict. Chinese leader Xi Jinping says he wants to bring Taiwan back under the mainland’s control. And now that he’s slated to extend his time in office through a third five-year term leading China’s National People’s Congress, Xi has said he hopes to continue down that road with a military strong enough to “win local wars.”

“The wheels of history are rolling on towards China’s reunification and the rejuvenation of the Chinese nation. Complete reunification of our country must be realized,” Xi said at the televised Congress.

Reed’s proposed amendment would further arm Taiwan through fast-tracked sales of arms, bring Taiwan into international organizations, and modernize the current Taiwanese military’s defensive capabilities. It’s unclear if the final version of the bill will include those sections. If present, they would go a long way toward asserting the United States’ resolve to financially support its allies—something that has already cost the U.S. $13.5 billion in support for Ukraine’s confrontation with Russia. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., has stated that if Republicans take control of the House of Representatives, there would be no “blank check” for Ukraine.

Because of its consistent reliability, the bill is also a magnet for all sorts of legislation that are otherwise unlikely to pass. Title LIII, section 5305 of Reed’s amendment package is titled “Special Rule for Certain Beach Nourishment Projects.” Additional items include a requirement that government computers should prohibit the use of pornography, guidelines for water management, and more. Now that the bill is running out of time, Spoehr worries it will experience large cuts without a lot of debate.

He expressed frustration that the bill had been in consideration since the beginning of this year but hasn’t received a lot of attention from the Senate due to a crowded list of legislative priorities.

“The tragedy of the whole thing is that it sometimes moves through Congress without a lot of debate,” Spoehr said. “It’s a large amount of money. It could stand to have more scrutiny. It should have been done months ago. They voted it out of committee in June, but they’ve just been consumed with a lot of other stuff.”

The Senate is expected to address the bill on Nov. 14, the first legislative priority in the wake of the 2022 midterm elections. Before passing the NDAA and sending it off to the president, the House and the Senate will have to come to a consensus on a single version of the bill.

Leo Briceno

Leo is a WORLD reporter covering politics in Washington, D.C. He is a graduate of Patrick Henry College.

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