Last month, the U.S. House of Representatives passed its version of the National Defense Authorization Act of 2020, following the lead of the Senate, who passed it in June. The NDAA is an annual spending authorization bill that lays out on a granular level what the Defense Department should spend its money on, by which entities, and under what conditions. The authorization bill is passed annually in conjunction with the defense appropriations bill, which actually does the business of doling out the funds.
“I’m glad to see that both the Senate and the House were able to act expeditiously in passing versions of the NDAA,” says Senator Mark Warner of Virginia. “The bill that we passed through the Senate takes a bipartisan approach towards meeting our national security challenges and better supporting our service members and their families, and includes much of my legislation, the Ensuring Safe Housing for Our Military Act, to improve oversight over the companies providing housing for military families.”
SIMILARITIES AND DIFFERENCES
The House and Senate have very different visions of the nation’s Defense priorities. This is perhaps most apparent with regard to the U.S. submarine fleet. The House version of the NDAA prohibits the use of low-yield nuclear warheads on submarines, zeroing out funding to Defense Department and National Nuclear Security Administration programs. The Senate provides those funds.
“Given the long-term history of U.S. attack subs carrying nuclear-tipped Tomahawk cruise missiles, adding the W76-2 warhead is not a fundamental shift in terms of policy or operational concepts for the U.S. submarine fleet as a whole, although these warheads will be deployed on ballistic missile submarines,” says Rick Berger, a research fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. He adds that the warhead creates another rung on the nuclear escalation ladder to respond to adversary advances in technology and doctrine.
With respect to Middle East policy, the House NDAA repeals the 2002 Authorization for Use of Military Force in Iraq, and expressly forbids unauthorized military actions against Iran. The Senate is silent on both issues. Both houses are in agreement, however, with respect to Turkey: with that country’s acceptance of Russian-made air defense systems, its participation in the F-35 fighter jet program is effectively over.
“The fact that both NDAA versions contain bans on F-35 deliveries to Turkey is a strong indicator that any administration move to mollify Ankara over its S-400 purchase will be met with nearly unanimous rejection in Congress,” Berger tells ClearanceJobs. “This is the same exact situation that played out regarding banning Huawei and ZTE and sanctioning those countries. When it acts with strong bipartisan majorities, Congress is impossible to ignore.”
With respect to the “Space Force,” neither bill establishes a separate branch of the military, though both call for some movement on the issue. The House transfers Air Force space assets to a Space Corps led by a commandant who will serve on the Joint Chiefs of Staff. It will exist within the U.S. Air Force. The Senate, meanwhile, renames the Air Force Space Command as the U.S. Space Force, led by a commander who, again, serves on the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
HOW IT AFFECTS THE CLEARED WORKFORCE
Sen. Warner authored the “Clearance in Person” provision in the Senate bill, which gets the ball rolling on a new process by which the clearances and background investigations of workers will remain current three years after leaving their cleared jobs, provided they enroll in a continuous vetting program. ClearanceJobs covered this in detail here. Clearance in person will enable greater flexibility for cleared workers moving in and out of cleared positions, and will ease the reciprocity process for workers who move from one agency or cleared contractor to another (i.e., the clearance granted to a Lockheed worker will carry over if said worker moves to Raytheon).
“The Senate defense bill also takes a significant step to modernize the nation’s security clearance process,” Sen. Warner tells ClearanceJobs. “Right now, we need a system that reflects today’s threats, the modern mobile workforce, and the availability of data and technology to automate the process.”
The security process, he says, has been relatively unchanged since 1947. To reform the security clearance process, the Senate bill also includes such overhauls as the Intel Authorization Act. This would provide twelve weeks of parental leave to cleared personnel; address concerns over threats from China as the U.S. moves to 5G wireless communications; and start work on the aforementioned clearance in person concept. The hope is that these provisions will attract talent and enable a nimbler clearance workforce, thus reducing the background investigation inventory that has long plagued the clearance community. (The backlog has already improved significantly and currently stands at about 340,000 workers. Security clearance processing times remain lengthy.)
partisan DIFFERENCES AHEAD
Timing is one of the few aspects of the 2020 NDAA about which the House and Senate, Democrats and Republicans, seem to be on the same page. Ordinarily, the defense authorization bill is a bipartisan affair. This is reflected in the Senate bill, which passed by a vote of 86-8. We do not, however, live in ordinary times. The House version of the bill passed without a single Republican voting in favor.
The bill now heads to a closed-door conference committee, where representatives of the House and Senate will trade horses and iron out differences in secret. After an agreement is reached, the bill will go back to the two houses of Congress for a vote yet again, and presumably, passage. It will then go to the White House for the president’s signature.
“As the conference committee continues its work on a final version, I will be monitoring its progress to make sure we reform the clearance process and uphold our national security priorities,” Sen. Warner tells ClearanceJobs.