Undeterred by pandemic, lawmakers ready their NDAA proposals

House Armed Services Chairman Adam Smith says he does not intend to produce a pared-down bill

Chairman Adam Smith, left, confers with ranking member Mac Thornberry before a House Armed Services Committee hearing on March 6, 2019.  (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Chairman Adam Smith, left, confers with ranking member Mac Thornberry before a House Armed Services Committee hearing on March 6, 2019. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted April 30, 2020 at 10:00am

The House Armed Services Committee had planned to spend Thursday in a marathon session debating the annual Pentagon policy bill and ultimately sending the massive measure to the floor.

But the novel coronavirus has brought the legislative process to a screeching halt, aside from a series of economic relief packages, and the annual rite of marking up the defense authorization bill has been pushed off indefinitely. Armed Services Committee members, however, are working from their districts to prepare their own proposals for inclusion in the bill, which lawmakers still hope to draft in the months ahead.

Much of the government’s attention may be on the COVID-19 pandemic, but the more routine functions of the Defense Department — buying ships, deploying forces around the world, preparing for a future cyberattack — still require congressional oversight and authorization.

Washington Democrat Adam Smith, chairman of the Armed Services Committee, said recently that he does not intend to truncate the legislative process and he does not intend to produce a pared-down bill.

CQ Roll Call asked several Armed Services members about their priorities for the NDAA. While they recognized the practical limitations posed by having less time to work together on the bill, they seem undeterred in their ambitions for their own policy provisions, many of which are parochial, making them particularly important in an election year.

[Coronavirus response to take priority in NDAA, House Armed Services chairman says]

Submarines, sea lift and tankers

For Rep. Rob Wittman, R-Va., the policy bill offers a chance to revisit the Navy’s shipbuilding plans.

The Navy’s fiscal 2021 budget request included one Virginia-class submarine, instead of the two envisioned previously and overall called for building just eight ships, two of which are tugboats.

Wittman, the top Republican on the Seapower and Projection Forces Subcommittee, said he and chairman Rep. Joe Courtney, D-Conn., agree on adding another attack sub back into the Navy’s plans. Electric Boat in Courtney’s district and Newport News Shipbuilding, which is located near Wittman’s district, build the submarines, a program that has long enjoyed widespread congressional support.

“I think there will be more discussion in that realm than there have been in years past,” Wittman said, adding that other members appear to agree that the Navy should move more quickly to increase the size of its fleet.

The Navy currently has 297 battle force ships in its fleet, while the Trump administration has set a long-term goal of 355 ships.

Wittman said he also wants to boost the Pentagon’s capacity to transport troops, equipment and other cargo (known as sea lift) to other countries and continents. In the fiscal 2019 NDAA, Congress gave the Navy permission to buy as many as seven more ships for its Ready Reserve fleet to augment the sea lift capacity that the Defense Department can access.

“And they purchased zero,” Wittman said, adding that he intends to be much more aggressive in ensuring the Pentagon follows through.

Wittman said he also proposes reducing the rate at which the Pentagon buys KC-46 tankers. The Boeing Co. program has a checkered history that includes schedule delays, unsafe debris left in the aircraft delivered to the Air Force and fuel leaks.

Until things improve, Wittman said he wants to cut the aircraft purchases to the minimum allowed under the existing contract.

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Climate resiliency, Space Force, joint operations

Rep. Jason Crow, D-Colo., said he will try to use the bill to make military bases and installations more climate-resilient and secure their electric infrastructure.

“The science is pretty clear that climate change is going to bring about increased instability and more pandemics, and this is a huge national security issue,” he said.

Some military vulnerabilities have been exposed by the coronavirus outbreak, with at least two Navy ships forced to return to port after cases spread among their crews, highlight the need to plan ahead to protect critical assets, Crow said.

“If anything, I think it’s more relevant to make sure we are enhancing the resiliency of our installations and our operations, for cyberattack, for pandemic, for climate,” he said.

With many of the country’s space assets located either in or near Crow’s district, the freshman congressman said he will continue to focus on the development of the Space Force, a new branch of the military service created in the fiscal 2020 defense authorization bill.

Space Force’s headquarters are at the Pentagon, but the Defense Department has not announced where its command center will be. U.S. Space Command, the combatant command that evolved into Space Force, was based at Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado, making it a leading contender to house the new branch.

“We are going to continue to work hard to make sure that we get the Space Command infrastructure in Colorado, and that we stand up a Guard component of Space Force,” Crow said.

And because many military exercises were called off after the COVID-19 outbreak, Crow said he hopes to include plans to reschedule military training operations with allies. Those include Defender Europe, where the United States was planning to send an Army division to train with counterparts in Germany, Poland and other Eastern European countries.

“There were some really important things that we were going to try to learn through Defender Europe: Mainly, do we have the transportation infrastructure to move these forces around?” said Crow, a former Army Ranger.

Cyber, hardware, Pacific pivot

Rep. Mike Gallagher, R-Wis., said he wants to include the recommendations of the Cyberspace Solarium Commission, which he co-chaired with Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, in the policy bill.

The recommendations include creating a Senate-confirmed national cyberspace director within the Executive Office of the President to oversee and coordinate federal efforts to prevent and mitigate a cyberattack.

“I think it’s a lesson from the current crisis, which is we need a single point person at the top of government who can coordinate and be responsible for federal efforts,” Gallagher said. “That’s true in pandemic, but it’s just as true in cyber.”

Congress should move now to ensure economic continuity in the event of a major cyber disruption, he said.

“I’m pretty optimistic that when the bill is said and done we’ll be able to point to a number of significant changes in the cyber domain to strengthen our national security,” said Gallagher, noting that fellow Armed Services Emerging Threats and Capabilities Subcommittee Chairman Jim Langevin, D-R.I., was also on the commission.

Gallagher also said he wants to push appropriators to provide money to the National Security Innovation Capital Fund, created in last year’s authorization bill. The fund is designed to give the Defense Innovation Unit, the Pentagon agency charged with working with cutting-edge technology companies, the ability to invest in companies producing innovative hardware.

“Usually, our national security venture capital tends to go toward software like [artificial intelligence] because that’s where better profit margins are, so hardware ends up getting underfunded,” he said. Gallagher said Armed Services member Elissa Slotkin, D-Mich., is working with him on that.

“Given how coronavirus has exposed the need for domestic innovation and the need to strengthen critical supply chains in the U.S., I think we can make a strong argument,” he said.

Gallagher said he also supports the efforts of Texas Rep. Mac Thornberry, the top Republican on the committee, to establish an Indo-Pacific Deterrence Initiative to counter Chinese influence in the region, akin to the European Deterrence Initiative that funds NATO allies’ efforts to offset Russia.

Earlier this month, Thornberry proposed authorizing $6.1 billion for the Indo-Pacific effort in the defense bill.

[Thornberry calls for US action to deter Iran aggression]

How will it get done?

With members scattered to their districts, it’s unclear just how the Armed Services Committee will proceed with the bill.

The markup can run for 18 hours, with more than 50 lawmakers and dozens of reporters, staff and observers packed, shoulder to shoulder, into the committee’s hearing room in Rayburn. Both Wittman and Crow said they believe House leadership is considering having the Armed Services panel be among the first to hold a markup once members return to Washington.

“Armed Services is going to be one of the priority committees because we have a lot of work to do to stay on schedule,” Crow said. This could involve having lawmakers spread across several rooms, using technology to communicate with each other.

Wittman said he could envision a scenario in which the committee eliminates formal subcommittee markups, which are typically brief, with members preferring to kick contentious issues to the full-committee markup.

“If there are things that could be controversial or not consensus, then those things will end up, I suspect, as amendments to the full committee [bill],” he said.

Smith and Thornberry put out a joint statement Tuesday noting that no decisions had been made regarding this year’s process.

“We are discussing those details and consulting with the Leadership of both parties,” the statement said. “At the same time we remain committed to the principles that have guided the bill in the past — regular order through the committee, transparency, and bipartisanship.”

Last year’s markup, Smith’s first as chairman, was unusually contentious, with all but two Republicans voting in committee against the bill. The vast majority of Republicans also voted against the typically bipartisan bill on the House floor.

Gallagher said bipartisan approval of this year’s bill would send the message that Congress can work together during a crisis.

“I think that you will see a spirit of wanting to get this done, and try to do everything we can to find areas of agreement,” added Wittman. “We will certainly debate issues but not get bogged down in those issues to the point of where they get in the way of getting the bill passed.”