Issues linger after House Armed Services’ smooth NDAA markup

Major area of policy disagreement could center on the Trump administration’s aggressive response to nationwide protests after George Floyd’s killing

Ranking member Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, center, Rep. Mike Conaway, R-Texas, right, and Rep. John Garamendi, D-Calif., attend the House Armed Services Committee markup of the National Defense Authorization Act on July 1.  (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Ranking member Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, center, Rep. Mike Conaway, R-Texas, right, and Rep. John Garamendi, D-Calif., attend the House Armed Services Committee markup of the National Defense Authorization Act on July 1. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Posted July 6, 2020 at 6:32am

The House Armed Services Committee’s almost 14-hour markup of the annual defense policy bill ended with a unanimous vote to send the measure to the House floor and a standing ovation.

Members rose to their feet after Chairman Adam Smith, D-Wash., announced that the bill would be named after ranking member Mac Thornberry, the affable Texan who is retiring from Congress at the end of the year and has been a mainstay in committee leadership for most of his 13 terms.

But beneath the decorous celebration, some real policy disagreements linger. And some of them are likely to resurface when the full chamber takes up the bill later this summer. Chief among those could be the Trump administration’s aggressive response to the nationwide protests that stemmed from the May 25 killing of George Floyd while in Minneapolis police custody.

[Fogged glasses, Diet Coke and promises to forgo the all-nighter: An NDAA markup like no other]

Rep. Chrissy Houlahan, D-Pa., introduced an amendment that would require any “federal law enforcement officer” involved in restoring order to display their name and the agency they work for.

Some of the personnel active in Washington during the civil unrest — which included staff from the Bureau of Prisons, U.S. Park Police, FBI, DEA and Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives — did not wear identifying insignia on their riot gear and refused to provide information about their identity, beyond their affiliation with the Department of Justice.

“Many of us who have served our country in uniform were very troubled to watch as members of our National Guard were deployed in Washington as part of the response to recent protests,” said Houlahan, an Air Force and Air Force Reserve veteran. “I can only speak for myself, but I took that oath to protect and defend this nation never imagining that I could be deployed against my fellow citizens.”

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Members of the military and National Guard are clearly identifiable, and other members of federal law enforcement should be too if they are acting under the Insurrection Act’s authorities, she said.

“We have all seen the footage of civilian individuals dressed in ambiguous clothing that suggested law enforcement or military, but frankly the line is very blurry, and that blurry line puts everyone at risk,” she said. “It’s as simple as that.”

Rep. Paul Mitchell, R-Mich., whose son is a police officer, said he agreed that uniformed police should be easily identifiable, but he said Houlahan’s proposal was overly broad and could be inappropriately applied to plainclothes and undercover officers.

Mitchell asked Houlihan to change her amendment to apply only to uniformed officers and offer it again when the full House considers the bill. Smith assured Houlahan her reworked amendment would see floor time, and she withdrew her original language.

Houlahan praised the panel’s attention to the Insurrection Act.

“Personally, I believe these authorities have done some good in our nation’s history, and they deserve re-examination and congressional engagement,” she said.

Not everything may be quite so easily smoothed over, however.

Republican lawmakers largely viewed efforts to address the protest response — including the deployment of the National Guard and the positioning of active-duty troops just outside Washington, D.C. — as aimed directly at Trump. Democrats, meanwhile, maintained that coming so close to using active-duty troops to deal with peaceful protesters warranted the implementation of additional checks and balances.

Just moments before discussion on Houlahan’s amendment, debate over an amendment offered by Rep. Veronica Escobar, D-Texas, that would require the president to certify to Congress the need to invoke the Insurrection Act became heated.

“Certification essentially means, ‘Tell us your plan,’” Escobar said. “Many of us, including [Defense] Secretary Esper, were caught basically unaware” of the president’s plan to send troops into American cities.

Mitchell criticized Escobar’s language as being too broad, saying it would hamper a president’s ability to respond quickly to a cyberattack or pandemic.

“We are taking an action here because of some ill-advised comment the president made,” Mitchell said. “Lafayette Park was one of the most ill-advised things I’ve seen in my life, but that doesn’t mean we take centuries-old legislation and change it because he’s irritated the hell out of us.”

“We’re changing a law that’s been on the books for centuries. It’s a knee-jerk overreaction,” said Rep. Doug Lamborn, R-Colo. “It’s an anti-Trump overreaction.”

Alabama Republican Bradley Byrne voiced concerns that Escobar’s amendment would limit the ability of future presidents to respond quickly to emergency situations, including riots and hurricanes.

“There are times when things just fall apart, and we need our president to have the power to do what’s necessary to protect the American people,” he said.

As Rep. Anthony G. Brown, D-Md., was explaining his support for Escobar’s amendment, Byrne interrupted him, which is not allowed under committee rules, earning a rebuke from Smith, who told everyone to “chill.” Moments later, when Byrne was recognized to speak, Brown vociferously interrupted him, saying, “It hurts when someone interrupts and they eat up your time on the clock, doesn’t it?”

“Are you kidding me, Anthony?” a visibly exasperated Smith barked as Brown continued to protest.

Byrne later yielded 30 seconds to Brown, who used the time to apologize to Byrne and Smith and the committee.

Escobar’s amendment was ultimately voted down, 25-31, with six Democrats (Anthony Brindisi of New York, Gil Cisneros of California, Jared Golden of Maine, Kendra Horn of Oklahoma, Elaine Luria of Virginia, and Xochitl Torres Small of New Mexico) joining the committee’s 25 Republicans in opposing it.

But the division over whether Trump’s handling of domestic unrest requires additional congressional action remains, and it is likely to lead to more amendments, and strenuous disagreement, when the bill heads to the House floor.