Conferees unveil NDAA as veto threat looms

House and Senate almost certainly have votes to override a veto or clear a newly minted version early in the next Congress

Aerial view of the Pentagon. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Aerial view of the Pentagon. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted December 3, 2020 at 6:47pm

A House-Senate conference committee has finished work on a $731.6 billion defense authorization conference report that would authorize near-record spending on national defense.

President Donald Trump has promised to veto the fiscal 2021 measure, known as the NDAA. But the legislation is mostly filled with military spending proposals that both parties embrace. 

Trump opposes this year’s NDAA because of one thing it contains, a mandate to change military base names that commemorate Confederates, and another thing it lacks: a repeal of legal protections for social media companies.

If the president vetoes the bill, the House and Senate almost certainly have the votes to override the veto or, alternatively, to clear a newly minted version of essentially the same NDAA early in the next Congress.

First, lawmakers must clear this bill. The House voted Thursday by unanimous consent to take up the NDAA conference report at any time and to vote on it after an hour of debate. It appears the vote will happen next week. It is not yet clear when the Senate might take it up for a vote.

Disputes between Congress and Trump or among lawmakers get most of the press, but the NDAA, which has been enacted for 59 straight fiscal years, is noteworthy again this year for the indispensable support it provides for the U.S. military and for its many new policies.

“Next week, members will have an opportunity to vote to pass the NDAA for the 60th year in a row,” said Rep. Mac Thornberry of Texas, the top Republican on the House Armed Services Committee, who is retiring and for whom the new law would be named. “This is an important milestone because it means that Congress’ decadeslong track record of setting the needs of our troops and our security above partisan agenda endures, even in trying times.”

This NDAA stands to be the last of 10 enacted during the era of the budget control law. Despite the spending caps in that law, defense spending has grown greatly in recent years. In fact, since World War II, U.S. military spending has never been higher than it is now, save for the height of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.

The measure would authorize $635.5 billion for base spending (including $8.5 billion for military construction), $69 billion for overseas operations, $26.6 billion for Energy Department atomic weapons activities and $494 million for “defense-related activities” in other agencies and departments. 

Another $8.9 billion in defense programs are authorized by other committees besides the Armed Services panels. Taken together, then, the resulting $740 billion in congressional authorization for defense matches the cap for fiscal 2021 in the budget law.

The new measure would support a 3 percent pay raise for military personnel and would essentially ratify the Trump administration’s fiscal 2021 plan to keep about 1.4 million Americans on active duty.

One of the signature provisions of the bill is its creation of a Pacific Defense Initiative, which gathers sundry Pentagon programs focused on deterring China into one category for better focus, more funding and closer oversight. The bill would authorize a number of initiatives to deal with China, including hypersonics, artificial intelligence, cybersecurity, more anti-ship missiles and hardening protections of satellites. 

The measure would authorize procurement of two Virginia-class attack submarines in fiscal 2021. The administration had formally requested just one, although it changed that request to two just this month. House and Senate appropriators must now determine whether to buy the second sub, at a cost in fiscal 2021 of $2.6 billion, and Senate appropriators so far have not endorsed it.

The NDAA would also approve $1.2 billion to start procuring parts for the first of a new type of nuclear missile submarines, the Columbia class. 

And the authorizers blessed $500 million in spending on a new amphibious ship that Senate appropriators also favor but that House appropriators did not include in their spending bill.

The bill is generous with authorization for new fighter jets, including 93 F-35s and other military aircraft. It bars the retirement of A-10 attack planes and older tanker aircraft, as the new KC-46 tanker is experiencing technical troubles.

The conferees expressed concern about oxygen deprivation in F-35 cockpits. The NDAA would order a Pentagon report on the causes.

“The conferees remain concerned that the continued increase in physiological episodes with aircraft equipped with On-Board Oxygen Generating Systems from across the different services pose a serious threat to safety and combat effectiveness,” the report said. “The conferees expect the Department to quickly take the necessary steps to ascertain the root cause(s) and resolve the problem(s).”

The measure contains a number of new policy provisions aimed at combating sexual assault in the ranks. One would require the department to write rules enabling victims of sexual assaults to be exonerated for certain minor offenses that happened at the same time as the assault.  

The NDAA would set conditions on U.S. financial support for peace talks in Afghanistan. The negotiations must occur in Afghanistan, include the participation of the Afghan government and not restrict the participation of women. The conferees also “prohibit Taliban members’ receipt of reimbursement for travel or lodging expenses and stipends or per diem payments.”

CQ Roll Call disclosed in 2019 that the Pentagon had asked Congress for authority and funds to indirectly defray some Taliban costs associated with participating in peace talks. The Pentagon had acknowledged at the time in private correspondence with the defense committees that such aid could run afoul of antiterrorism laws.

The bill authorizes $4 billion for Afghan security forces and requires an assessment of risks before U.S. troop levels in Afghanistan decline further. Similar limitations are attached to drawdowns in South Korea and Germany, although the next president is less likely to make those moves.