Congress

‘Skinny’ defense bill omits key element: Military construction

Backup plan lacks details that could affect controversial border wall funding plan

Senate Armed Services Chairman James M. Inhofe, R-Okla., intends his "skinny" bill to cover the bare minimum of a defense authorization. (Sarah Silbiger/CQ Roll Call file photo)

The Senate Armed Services Committee chairman earlier this week filed a stripped-down defense authorization bill that he said contained the U.S. military’s must-pass provisions — a backup plan in case House and Senate conferees cannot agree on a full authorization measure in the next few weeks.

But the so-called skinny bill is missing one essential element: a detailed list of authorized military construction projects.

[As defense talks drag on, Inhofe prepares pared-down bill]

“A skinny bill is simple,” Chairman James M. Inhofe, an Oklahoma Republican, said in an Oct. 29 floor speech introducing the measure. “It extends necessary authorities for military operations, takes care of the servicemembers and their families, and authorizes essential military construction and acquisition programs. That’s it.”

Absent a full conference report negotiated by both chambers of Congress, Inhofe’s draft bill would be needed to accomplish the bare minimum things that only defense authorization bills can do, notably including keeping alive military pay and benefits programs that expire at the end of the calendar year.

As for military construction projects, however, Inhofe’s skinny measure would authorize them only in broad terms. For the details and dollar amounts, the legislation points to funding tables in a “Section 4601.” But that section is not yet part of the text.

If senators decide to take up Inhofe’s skinny bill instead of a more complete conference report, then the missing tables will be added at that time, a Senate Armed Services Committee aide told CQ Roll Call.

[Pentagon caught in a political fight over impeachment inquiry]

But until that happens, Inhofe’s backup plan, which purports to represent the indispensable elements of a defense authorization bill, is incomplete. The omission is important because military construction projects are one of just a handful of defense programs that must not only receive appropriations but also must be authorized in order to be undertaken.

So until that Armed Services Committee authorization comes, the funding in the Military Construction-VA appropriations bill would effectively be an empty gesture.

Skinny bill would add weight

House and Senate negotiators have been working for weeks to reconcile the two chambers’ defense authorization bills, officially titled the National Defense Authorization Act, or NDAA. Representatives of the Democratic-run House and the Republican-majority Senate remain divided on a handful of NDAA issues, lawmakers have said.

One of the thorniest debates surrounds the House-passed NDAA’s proposal to block President Donald Trump from tapping Defense Department funds, including fiscal 2019 and 2020 military construction money, to pay for building barriers on the U.S. border with Mexico.

Presumably, when the final version of Inhofe’s uncontroversial skinny bill emerges, it will not contain any hot-button military construction elements favored by either side.

But it will not be easy for either side to remain silent on the border issue, given how prominent it has been in America’s political debate.

Construction projects hit

Trump has used an emergency provision in a military construction law to divert $3.6 billion in fiscal 2019 military construction money, half of it for domestic projects and the other half for work in other countries, toward U.S.-Mexico border projects.

For fiscal 2020, he sought nearly $3.6 billion to repay those now-underfunded fiscal 2019 projects, and he requested another roughly $3.6 billion in military construction money for additional border projects in fiscal 2020.

[Federal judge rules Trump border wall declaration unlawful]

Pentagon officials have said they would seek money from other countries to pay for some or all of the fiscal 2019 construction projects on their territories that were siphoned for wall money. U.S. military officials have called some of those projects in Eastern Europe key elements of defenses against Russia.

The Senate-passed NDAA would agree to Trump’s request to backfill the $3.6 billion in fiscal 2019 funds, but it would not provide the additional $3.6 billion in fiscal 2020 money. Republicans on the Senate’s Military Construction-VA Appropriations Subcommittee are inclined to mirror at least that mixed approach once they mark up their as-yet-unreleased bill, if not the full amount.

The House NDAA measure, meanwhile, would provide none of that $7.2 billion, nor would that chamber’s Military Construction-VA appropriations bill.

The House NDAA and Military Construction-VA bills would go further. They would ban presidents from using military money for border projects and would cap how much Pentagon money can be diverted under the emergency powers.

The House NDAA measure also would restrict an administration’s ability to use a Pentagon counter-drug account for other purposes, striking at another funding mechanism used by Trump to bankroll his border barriers. Similar restrictions are contained in the House’s Defense appropriations bill.

Jennifer Shutt contributed to this report.

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