The Senate’s version of the National Defense Authorization Act would normally have passed before the senators departed for their summer recess. At this point, with fewer than three weeks until the start of the new fiscal year, the House and Senate should be in conference to resolve differences.
But since Sen. John McCain, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, was home in Arizona receiving treatment for brain cancer, the whole process has shifted into the fall. Consideration of the bill began Monday with a procedural vote. Senators will consider amendments this week, and the bill could pass the Senate as early as the end of the week.
Last Thursday, the White House’s Office of Management and Budget released its Statement of Administration Policy, outlining those provisions in the Senate’s version the administration disagrees with. By the looks of it, this administration is not on the same page with a Congress controlled by the same party.
object or strongly object
When staffers at the various departments draft these memoranda, they can either “object” or “strongly object” to its provisions. “Strongly object” often signals a provision that might result in a veto were it to be included in the final version. This year’s bill addresses 34 provisions; the administration strongly objects to 12 of them.
For comparison, the FY 2016 NDAA, a bill that President Obama vetoed in October 2015, the SAP called out 31 provisions and strongly objected to 19 of them. In 2006, the last time President George W. Bush commented on an NDAA drafted by a Republican Congress, the administration called out 30 provisions, and only strongly objected to eight of them.
My initial assessment was that either Mick Mulvaney was running a very different OMB, or the Administration really objected to this bill. He pointed out that this is more an indication that the Pentagon has been understaffed and Congress took the opportunity to assert itself. In Congress, the defense hawks are currently stronger than the deficit hawks.
where’s the heartburn?
If the order in which the memo lists the provisions, the administration’s biggest objection is to the prohibition on conducting additional rounds of base closures, known as BRAC. The Pentagon has wanted this authority for years, and the president’s budget proposal request it. But no congressman who has any type of defense facility in his district (and there are a lot of them), and the last round of closures began right as the Great Recession began, so the reluctance is understandable, if a bit fiscally irresponsible.
Curiously, though, the Senate bill would reduce the number of assistant secretaries in each of the three military departments by one, eliminating the office responsible for managing all those installations the Congress won’t let the administration cut. Yet to this provision, the administration merely “objects.”
Lastly, for all his protectionist talk during the election, the president could only muster an “object” to the three provisions that would weaken the Berry Amendment, the law that requires the DoD to buy clothing, textiles, and many other items exclusively from U.S. sources.
That weak reaction to a desire to buy defense items overseas makes about as much sense as anything else that’s happened recently.