Senate committee proposes big Pentagon funding boost

Armed Services panel would more than double Biden’s proposed increase for defense

The defense budget authorized by Senate Armed Services Chairman Jack Reed could set off a fight with fellow Democrats who want to restrain Pentagon spending. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
The defense budget authorized by Senate Armed Services Chairman Jack Reed could set off a fight with fellow Democrats who want to restrain Pentagon spending. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted July 22, 2021 at 8:36pm

The Senate Armed Services Committee’s new defense authorization bill endorses a mammoth boost to an already epic defense budget, upping the bargaining power of defense hawks as lawmakers inch closer to setting fiscal 2022 appropriations levels.

The committee’s version of the National Defense Authorization Act, approved in a 23-3 vote on Wednesday, would authorize $777.9 billion for U.S. defense programs, mainly at the Pentagon but also at the Energy Department and elsewhere, the committee said in a 40-page summary issued Thursday.

That total amount of funding would be $25 billion more than President Joe Biden sought for the coming fiscal year and $37 billion more than was enacted for fiscal 2021.

Biden’s defense request, by comparison, was about 1.6 percent above the fiscal 2021 level, and the additional boost proposed by the Senate committee — if appropriators agree — would put next year’s spending more than 5 percent higher than this year’s. That’s probably enough to keep pace with even heightened inflation in fiscal 2022.

The fiscal 2022 appropriations bills, not the NDAA, will determine how much money the defense establishment gets going forward, and fiscal 2022 appropriations levels have yet to be set.

But the Armed Services Committee’s new recommendation creates a resounding statement of bipartisan support for higher defense spending, even though the current level is the highest since World War II, adjusted for inflation, except for the record set at the height of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.

Rhode Island Democrat Jack Reed, in his first year as the Senate committee’s chairman, said in the committee statement that the bill “will help safeguard the nation, counter a range of evolving threats, and support our troops both on and off the battlefield."

An aide to Vermont Democrat Patrick J. Leahy, the Appropriations Committee chair, did not state Leahy’s view on the defense increase but said: “Chairman Leahy, as he has been for months, is urging bipartisan and bicameral negotiations with the White House to establish agreed upon toplines so that the Appropriations Committee can do its work.”

Hardware proposals

By setting the topline for defense at $777.9 billion, the committee appears to have enabled itself to authorize spending to not only meet the president’s goals — such as a 2.7 percent pay raise for military personnel and Defense Department civilians — but also to bankroll virtually all the so-called unfunded priorities on the service chiefs’ lists.

Such programs were not considered critical enough to make the president’s budget, but they have become a de facto part of it.

The Armed Services Committee’s recommendations are not binding on appropriators, but being authorized gives a program an imprimatur of credibility.

U.S. Special Operations Command, for instance, would get $200 million not requested by the president for items on its unfunded list. 

The committee did, however, restrict spending on a new type of aircraft for special operations troops: The Armed Overwatch program would not be able to procure planes until the committee gets a report on the requirements for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance aircraft.

The U.S. commander in the Indo-Pacific region, for his part, would receive some $700 million for assets that did not make the budget cut.

The authorizers approved the addition of lots of hardware to the armed services’ budgets. This includes one $85 million F-35 fighter jet for the Air Force and five more for the Navy for $535 million above the request.

The panel also approved spending $575 million above the request for five F-15EX fighter jets for the Air Force.

It does not appear the panel added money for procurement of unrequested F/A-18E/F Super Hornets, after House appropriators proposed adding nearly $1 billion worth in their spending bill.

The Senate panel also added $746 million above the request for combat vehicles.

The senators added $1.7 billion for a second Arleigh Burke class destroyer, plus a $350 million downpayment for a new amphibious assault ship, in addition to millions more dollars for still other ship programs.

Policy power

The policy provisions, more than the dollars for hardware, are what gives the Armed Services committees their greatest clout.

Arguably the panel’s most noteworthy provision is its inclusion of legislation by New York Democrat Kirsten Gillibrand that would create military attorney offices that would be empowered to decide which felony allegations to prosecute. Senior officers now make those calls.

The measure contains a number of provisions on how to implement the new offices — but there is no indication that critics of the proposal were able to limit the scope of crimes that the offices would be responsible for, as some of the critics had sought.

Defense Department leaders, backed by Reed and Oklahoma’s James M. Inhofe, the Armed Services Committee’s ranking Republican, had wanted to circumscribe the scope of the change so it only covered sexual offenses and related crimes. 

But Gillibrand argued successfully against having a two-track system, and she secured the votes to make the change affect not just sexual crimes but most felonies.

In a related provision, the measure would require the president to write regulations making sexual harassment a standalone offense under the military’s legal code.

And the new bill would require the Pentagon to implement Government Accountability Office recommendations on sexual harassment and assault — some of which have gone unimplemented for years, even after officials agreed to enact them, as CQ Roll Call reported over a year ago.

Separately, the Senate panel ordered the armed services to conduct reviews at no fewer than six military installations to assess the climate as it pertains to sexual offenses, discrimination and the like.

Another historic move was the committee’s approval of language that would require adult women to sign up for the draft.

Gitmo, Afghanistan and more

The Senate panel extended through the end of 2022 existing statutory bans on closing the U.S. military-run prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and also gave continued life to limitations on transferring detainees and on building prisons for them in the United States.

The House Appropriations Committee’s Defense Department spending measure, by contrast, would upend the existing prohibitions and limits.

In addition, the Senate panel would bar the military from using open burn pits in overseas operations after many veterans attributed health problems to the smoke from such fires in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The committee, as usual, limited the Pentagon’s ability to retire aging assets. 

The committee barred any warship retirements until the Navy sends certain certifications to Congress. And the panel would limit retirements of C-130 cargo aircraft, A-10 attack planes, B-1 bombers and more.

The committee authorized continued support for the Afghan military and police and for the Pentagon to transfer Afghan refugees out of the country.

The new bill would end statutory language that expresses a preference for fixed price contracts.

It would require the Pentagon to continue to produce and send to Congress the department’s Selected Acquisition Reports — one of the few ways the press and public can track weapons costs.

The panel also decreed that the Air National Guard will henceforth be called the Air and Space National Guard.

And, of course, the committee, as is its wont, included a plethora of requirements for reports — on everything from overhauling the Pentagon’s budgeting and planning system to reckoning the gap between America’s military capabilities and China’s.