Is there anything more boring and tedious than watching congressional staff and their bosses debate for hours over pieces of legislation? Well, if you happened to witness the House Armed Services Committee earlier this month, when Democrats and Republicans were trying to reconcile hundreds of amendments over a span of 12 hours, the answer is a resounding, yes. Even so, we in the general public have it easy: The committee staff who are actually responsible for getting these types of bills passed have it far worse.
No one said the "sausage-making" of public policy is interesting to watch, but it is nonetheless a vitally important part of the legislative process. Without it, Washington would be more dysfunctional than it already is. That's why I had to give a salute to the men and women of the House Armed Services Committee when they finally wrapped up their hours-long debate and unanimously passed the 2015 National Defense Authorization Act -- a bill that "authorizes appropriations" for the Department of Defense and the U.S. military over the next fiscal year.
The actual bill that was passed is over 200 pages long, and that's without the appendix and funding tables included at the end of the legislation. There was no way I was going to read the entire bill with all its legalese, but thankfully Chairman Buck McKeon and his staff were generous enough to provide the public with a thorough summary in plain English. And, glancing at the summary, there are a few interesting tidbits that are worthy of pointing out.
1. All Weapons Platforms Need To Be Saved: When Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel dripped out his 2015 Defense budget request last February and March, there was the predictable outrage from members of Congress that the Pentagon was cutting too much, too quickly. Weapons platforms that are sacrosanct, like the A-10 close support aircraft, was scheduled to be demobilized and decommissioned in Hagel's request. And the U.S. Army's end-strength was to be cut from 570,000 to around 450,000. The Obama administration and Defense Department have argued that these cuts are necessary given the budget realities of sequester (courtesy of the U.S. Congress), and that this was the only way that the Pentagon could receive the money needed in other areas of the defense budget.
For members of HASC, however, Hagel's request was simply too much of a shock to the system. The bill passed by the committee last week would "prohibit...the expenditure of funds'" to retire some of the very weapons platforms that the Defense Department believes are either unneeded or obsolete in the 21st Century battle environment. The U-2 reconnaissance plane and the A-10 "Warthog" are essentially banned from decommission, a move that has been praised by Republicans on the Senate side as a wise course of action. For others, like Rep. Adam Smith, the top Democrat on HASC, this same decision is foolish. Saving as many weapons platforms now, Smith says, will only make the military's budget situation dimmer in the future.
2. Support For A Post-2014 U.S. Presence In Afghanistan: Amid news that the Obama administration is beginning to consider fewer U.S. troops in Afghanistan after the 2014 NATO mission ends -- some administration officials have been considered the withdrawal of all troops from the country after that date -- HASC members felt that they needed to put themselves on the record. Section 1217 of the bill expresses the sense of Congress that retaining a U.S. military presence in Afghanistan after December 31, 2014 is critical to meeting U.S. national security objectives in the country. And the committee also wants President Obama to be a far more active Commander-in-Chief on this issue: "The President," the bill reads, "should announce the United States residual presence for Operation Resolute Support to reassure the people of Afghanistan and to provide a tangible statement of support for the future of Afghanistan." The White House, as you might expect, has not made that announcement yet.
3. Support For Forward Deployment Of U.S. Forces In the Middle East: "It is the sense of Congress," the bill states, "that the United States should maintain a robust forward presence and posture in order to support United States allies and partners in the Arabian Gulf region, including Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries and Israel, and to deter Iran." Despite negotiations with the Iranians over its nuclear program, Congress remains highly concerned that Tehran is a destabilizing and dangerous actor in the region that deserves a strong U.S. response. But there is also a subtler message that the committee is sending to President Obama: even if Iran signs a nuclear agreement with the P5+1 negotiating team, Washington cannot afford to let down their guard.
4. Russia Is An Adversary: Committee members are tough on Russia. According to the language, no funds made available through the 2015 NDA can be expended to promote U.S.-Russia military contact or cooperation unless the Secretary of Defense can certify to Congress that Moscow has met a series of requirements: That Russia has withdrawn troops from Ukrainian territory, that Russia is respecting Ukraine's territorial integrity and sovereignty, and that Russia is complying with missile defense and arms treaties that they have signed. Combined with the Obama administration's incremental sanctions on Russian individuals and entities, this no-contact clause will have the desired effect of further punishing Moscow for its activities in Eastern Europe and depriving the Russian military from benefiting from the world's most powerful military force.
Fortunately, the committee had the fortitude to provide one exception to this clause: contact is allowed if that contact supports U.S. operations overseas. This means that the U.S. military will still be able to rely on the Northern Distribution Network as a transport and transit route to and from Afghanistan.
5. More Support for AFRICOM: The September 11, 2012 attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, has clearly spooked the committee. Bottom Line: HASC wants more resources, intelligence capabilities, manpower and enablers to support U.S. operations across the African continent.
As is common during budget and authorization talks, a lot of these items are subject to negotiation. The Senate Armed Services Committee, where Democrats have a majority, will likely water down, modify, strengthen, or delete entire sections of the HASC bill. But, at the beginning stage of the process, the House Armed Services Committee has spoken loud and clear.
UPDATE as of May 21, 2014: If this memo released by the White House is any indication of its feelings towards the House Armed Services Committee, then we are in for a long period of negotiations over the defense authorization bill. Indeed, the Obama administration is very unhappy with what the committee passed earlier this month.
The bill, the administration argues, simply ignores many of the choices that the Defense Department needs to make in order to generate enough savings for future contingencies and requirements. As the legislation is currently written, the Pentagon is prohibited from using any funding in its budget over the next fiscal year for the retirement of the A-10 -- nor can money be used towards another round of base closures. And, in perhaps the administration's biggest objection of all, the White House and the Office of Management and Budget strongly opposes the committee's Sense Of Congress resolution on Iran that would prejudge the outcome of a final nuclear agreement. Such activity, in the words of the White House, "undermines" what U.S. and European negotiators are trying to achieve.
Money quote: "If the bill presented to the President impedes the ability of the Administration to properly direct scarce resources for our military...the President's senior advisors would recommend to the President that he veto the bill."
You can't get a stronger indictment than that. Now, the work heads to the Senate, where the White House will no doubt press Senate Democrats to scrub some of these impediments.