NDAA Heads to Conference with a Few Billion Problems

Government

With a voice vote on Monday, the Senate approved sending its version of the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2018 to conference. The senators and congressmen will now formally work on what their staffs have been working on for months behind the scenes: crafting a compromise between two bills with similar but still different views on how the Department of Defense should spend its money next year.

Some of the differences are striking.

The Senate Armed Services Chairman is a Former Aviator

In late June, we discussed how Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee showered gifts on Navy and Air Force aircraft procurement in the Senate’s mark-up of the annual bill. What we didn’t discuss at the time was how much different the Senate’s wish list is from the House’s.

In its admittedly incomplete and somewhat hastily compiled budget request, the administration asked for a little over $15 billion for the Navy’s aviation procurement budget, which includes planes and the parts to keep them flying. (The money to actually fly and repair them is in another section).

The House version of the bill, passed in July, allocated more than $18.4 billion for this activity, just under $3.4 billion more than requested. The Senate’s version of the bill, adopted in September, allocates $20.2 billion for Navy aircraft procurement, more than $5 billion more than the administration’s request and almost $1.8 billion more than the House version.

Similarly, the Air Force’s budget gets love from both houses, but more on the Senate side. The administration asked for more than $15.4 billion for new aircraft. The House approved nearly $3 billion more than that, while the Senate approved more than $5 billion over the request.

For those like me who are mathematically challenged (my calculator has been getting a workout), we’re up to a difference of more than $4 billion between the two bills, and we’ve only looked at Navy and Air Force aircraft procurement.

The Army gets a boost, too, but not to the same degree as its sister services. The budget request for weapons and tracked combat vehicles was $2.4 billion. The House allocated nearly $5 billion. The Senate approved $4.36 billion more than requested, but their version includes $111 million for the recapitalization of one battalion’s worth of M2A4 Bradley Infantry Fighting Vehicles not included in the House version.

To quote the late Everett Dirksen once again, “A billion here, a billion there, and pretty soon you’re talking about real money.”

But the shadow of sequestration, the automatic cuts required by the Budget Control Act, looms over all of this. The amounts Congress wants to spend on the military, while admirable — even necessary — are simply unworkable without changing the law. Plus, Congress hasn’t passed a real budget in a decade.

The NDAA authorizes expenditures, but the Appropriations Acts actually take the money out of the bank. The House Armed Services Committee has been sending regular email updates to reporters entitled “Losing Time.” Each one is headed by the same quote from HASC Chairman Mac Thornberry (R-Tex.): “Every day we live under a continuing resolution is a day we do damage to our military.”

There are very few things Congress MUST do every year. The NDAA and the 12 appropriations bills are chief among them. Continuing resolutions keep the lights on, but they don’t allow new programs to begin. We can’t continue like that forever.

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

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