Understanding the NDAA – The DoD Budget Request for 2018

Security Clearance

Former FBI Director James Comey’s testimony on Thursday before the Senate Intelligence Committee was the most anticipated, and surely the most-watched, event to-date in the current Congress. The speculation beforehand and the ferocious spin afterwards consumed Beltway pundits.

Congress has far more mundane, but no less important, issues to attend to though, and this evening, the House Armed Services Committee will begin the long process towards passage of its annual National Defense Authorization Act, when Secretary of Defense James Mattis and Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, answer questions on the DoD’s budget request for Fiscal Year 2018.

You can watch the hearing here, beginning at 7:00 p.m.

For much of this week, Daily Intel will focus on what the NDAA is (and is not), and what we can expect to see in this year’s version.

THE NDAA IS NOT WHAT MANY PEOPLE WANT YOU TO BELIEVE

The NDAA is an annual piece of legislation which sets the end-strength levels for the armed services, authorizes budget expenditures (which are appropriated separately), and establishes other policies for the Department of Defense.

Congress passes authorization acts for other executive departments only sporadically. For instance, the Department of State Authorities Act that became law in December 2016 was the department’s first authorization act since 2002. By contrast, Congress has passed an NDAA every year since 1961.

This legislation is important, but isn’t something that gets a lot of coverage outside of the defense-oriented media, which can sometimes lead to confusion. For instance, the NDAA for Fiscal Year 2012 included a controversial provision on detention of suspected terrorists. The vague language in the bill led many to conclude that it authorized the government to arrest U.S. citizens on American soil and hold them without trial (the government claimed this was to the intent of the language).

Subsequent coverage of the debate over this provision led many to discuss the NDAA as if it were a signature piece of legislation like the USA PATRIOT Act or the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978, rather than a routine and necessary piece of legislation that sometimes includes controversial provisions.

In fact, the jobs for cleared professionals in the Department of Defense Department of Energy are created through this legislation.

Laws are Like Sausages. Better Not to See Them Being Made

Mattis’s and Dunford’s testimony will be just the first step in a process that will likely take until December to complete.

Last week, Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-Tex.), chairman of the House Armed Services Committee and Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.), the ranking Democratic member, began the process by filing H.R. 2810, a bill that contains the DoD’s legislative proposals, and which will serve as the foundation for the fiscal Year 2018 NDAA.

Daily Intel will bring you more details of those proposals once Congress publishes the text of the bill.

Later this week, the committee will set the schedule for “mark-up,” where its members will incorporate existing bills, along with new ideas, into the final version of the bill. The Senate will begin its parallel process shortly, and the two houses will resolve differences between the two competing versions in a conference committee over the summer and autumn.

Tom McCuin is a strategic communication consultant and retired Army Reserve Civil Affairs and Public Affairs officer whose career includes serving with the Malaysian Battle Group in Bosnia, two tours in Afghanistan, and three years in the Office of the Chief of Public Affairs in the Pentagon. When he’s not devouring political news, he enjoys sailboat racing and umpiring Little League games (except the ones his son plays in) in Alexandria, Va. Follow him on Twitter at @tommccuin