Policy

Success of Sprawling Defense Policy Bill Remains Uncertain

Partisan politics, abbreviated calendar, veto threat loom

House Armed Services Chairman Mac Thornberry of Texas says he is working to finish the defense policy bill during the pre-election session in September. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

The House and Senate Armed Services committees can trace their clout on Capitol Hill and within the Pentagon to one simple fact: The defense authorization has been signed into law annually for more than half a century.

The panels’ unprecedented 54-year legislative streak gives them tremendous authority over Pentagon policy and spending priorities, and allows them to take a much more muscular approach to oversight than many other congressional committees.

But thanks to partisan politics, an abbreviated congressional calendar and an expansive veto threat in the waning days of the Obama administration, this could be the year the massive policy bill falls by the wayside.

Failure to pass the massive measure jeopardizes dozens of new and renewed authorities affecting everything from military pay and bonuses to military construction programs to weapons contracts — the same elements that have made the authorization measure a must-pass piece of legislation for more than a half-century.

While the Pentagon relies on many of those authorities for its day to day operations, the committees’ influence is perhaps at the greatest risk.

If the bill isn’t enacted by the end of this Congress, Senate Armed Services Chairman John McCain's much-touted efforts to use this year’s measure (S 2943) to change the Pentagon's often unwieldy bureaucracy and its weapons-buying processes will fade along with the legislation.

The Arizona Republican has said his 1,600-page bill offers the most extensive package of reforms in more than 30 years, including standing down the acquisition, technology and logistics office and eliminating the joint program office overseeing the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.

In its version of the bill (HR 4909), the House makes its own — albeit more modest — stabs at changing the bureaucracy, in the hopes of making the department’s operations more efficient.    

“It’s pretty catastrophic, I think, from the perspective of the Armed Services committees,” said Andrew Hunter of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a former senior House Armed Services staffer. “Once it doesn’t get done and people discover it didn’t get done and the world didn’t end, that means maybe it won’t get done next year, maybe it won’t get done the year after.”

As they get to work resolving differences in the two measures, the so-called Big Four —  McCain and House Armed Services Chairman Mac Thornberry of Texas, and their Democratic counterparts, Rep. Adam Smith of Washington and Sen. Jack Reed of Rhode Island — have all expressed hope in recent weeks that the bill will get done once again this year.

But they have also acknowledged that it is not a certainty, particularly if the bill isn’t wrapped up before the November elections. 

“With so much volatility in our politics and in the world, I don’t know of anybody that’s smart enough to think through various scenarios of what may happen in the lame duck,” Thornberry said Thursday.

Thornberry and the other committee leaders have said they are working to finish the bill during the short pre-election session in September. They and their staffs will continue to work on the bill over the upcoming summer recess to resolve dozens of policy differences.

Some of those — including the Senate’s efforts to stand down the acquisition office and another provision that would require women to register for the draft — are quite divisive this year.  The two chambers are even at odds over the topline. The House bill underfunds operations overseas by $18 billion to pay for base-budget priorities like more fighter jets and ships, and the Senate measure does not follow suit — despite McCain’s efforts to boost the base budget.

Committee leaders stressed, however, that they manage to overcome obstacles and hammer out a bill every year, and this year will be no different.

“The fact is, Chairman Thornberry, Congressman Smith and Senator Reed and I all get along very well and I’m confident those issues will be resolved and we will come up with the bill,” McCain said.

But time, McCain acknowledged, is of the essence.

“Is it before or after the election that we get all this done, particularly if you get a presidential veto, which has already been threatened?” he said.

President Barack Obama demonstrated last year that he is not afraid to veto the expansive defense bill. The measure was ultimately saved by a last-minute two-year budget deal that allowed the committees to easily amend the measure and resend the bill to the president’s desk.

No new deal is likely this year, and the veto threatened by the president covers everything from the topline to policy provisions governing the military’s detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Indeed, the White House’s statement of administration policy highlighting the provisions it objected to in the Senate numbered a whopping 21 pages. The statement on the House bill is similarly long, at 17 pages. 

McCain said he would be “greatly surprised” if the bill didn’t get enacted this year, but he also suggested he isn’t entirely confident in the bill’s fate.

“I wouldn’t discount any possibility,” he said.  

In the Senate, the bill received the support of 88 senators — more than enough to overcome a veto. But in the House, 147 members — including Smith — voted against the bill, narrowly giving opponents of the measure enough votes to sustain a veto.

Smith, however, believes there will be a resolution this fall over the top line, which could pave the way for an agreement.

“I think we will fix the number, one way or the other,” he said on Wednesday, adding that he is optimistic about the bill’s chances.

For his part, Thornberry says history — and a tradition of bipartisan cooperation on the bill — is on their side.

“I do believe that on both sides of the Capitol, both sides of the aisle, this weight of history and the men and women who serve helps to bring out the better individuals in our nature,” Thornberry said.

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