Pared-Down Defense Bill Heads to Senate – Cleared in Congress

Government capitol

Photo by Joshua L. Wick

Cleared Congressional Round-Up: The week’s latest from Congress on legislation, hearings and oversight affecting those in the cleared world

2014 Defense Appropriations, Round II: House Reaches Deal, Sends to Senate

After an original version stalled in the Senate, the House overwhelmingly approved a compromise version of the defense authorization bill on Thursday.  The Senate will take up the bill next week under an expedited consideration process in which additional amendments are prohibited.

While ensuring roughly $550 billion in defense funding, the compromise bill excludes several contentious measures such as stricter sanctions against Iran, and a sexual assault reform that would remove decisions to prosecute allegations of sexual assault from the military chain of command – something opposed by the Pentagon.

The bill does, however, introduce other oversight protections for sexual assault as well as changes to Guantanamo Bay prisoner policy.  The ban on transferring Gitmo prisoners to the U.S. for prosecution and incarceration will remain, while restrictions on transferring prisoners’ to other countries will be eased — furthering the Obama Administration’s pledge to dissolve the facility.

Senators’ initial response to the compromise measure was lukewarm.  Armed Services Chairman Sen. Carl Levin (D-MI) told reporters he wants passage before the end of the year, adding, “If this is the only way to get a bill done, OK.”

Afghanistan Exit Strategy: “Holy cow!”

Downscaling U.S. involvement in Afghanistan is proving a massive – and exasperating – task.

The U.S. will transition from combat operations to an “advise and assist” role in 2014, and House and Senate committees are scrutinizing the process.  Pervasive corruption, Pakistan’s influence, and a scarcity of US diplomatic resources threaten transition success.

But Administration officials’ ignorance of more straightforward facts has deepened members’ skepticism.  When none of Tuesday’s witnesses knew the amount spent or the number of lives lost in Afghanistan, Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) exclaimed: “We’re supposed to believe that you fellas have a plan that’s going to end up in a positive way in Afghanistan? Holy cow!”

Kerry Spars with Members Over Iran

Eschewing new sanctions on Iran and defending the recent nuclear deal, Secretary Kerry faced-off with a House Foreign Affairs Committee unified in opposition.

Kerry cautioned that immediate US action could jeopardize an agreement.  “Our partners don’t expect us to pass new sanctions while we’re negotiating, and our partners will get squirrely about sanctions,” Kerry contended.  “They’ll figure we’re doing our own thing and we’re not part of the team.”

But after the lengthy hearing, both Chairman Royce (R-CA) and Ranking Member Engel (D-NY) remained resolute.

In the Senate, Banking Committee Chairman Tim Johnson (D-SD) – charged with overseeing sanctions legislation in the Senate – supports the Administration’s approach.  “We should not do anything counterproductive that might shatter Western unity on this issue,” he said.

Why is the Coast Guard Coming Up Short?

According to the Service’s own data, it is failing mission performance targets: in 2012 less than half of its performance measures were met, and other metrics were equally bleak.  A House subcommittee endeavored to determine the cause.

Blame it on funding?  The numbers may be attributable to the Coast Guard’s unreliable aircraft and vessels, which have surpassed their service lives and grown increasingly prone to failures.