House Defense Authorization Bill: What Just Happened?

After two long days, the House of Representatives wrapped up consideration of  H.R. 4909, the Fiscal Year 2017 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), last night. With over 379 amendments filed, 120 of which were considered by the full House, it can be hard to follow what was added, what changed, and what the final product looked like.

The legislation sets the funding levels and policy provisions for the Department of Defense (DOD), the largest agency in the federal government in discretionary dollars. As our national debt climbs and with hundreds of billions of dollars – not to mention, our national security – on the line, it’s important that taxpayers are paying attention to this high stakes legislation.

Going into the fight, NTU had significant concerns about the underlying bill (read our vote alert here). The bill contains a funding scheme that puts Pentagon “wish list” projects (like the F-35 and Littoral Combat Ship, two acquisition boondoggles) above front-line service members and has the potential to set up yet another budget-busting spending deal in 2017. Our friends at the Project on Government Oversight have a comprehensive take on the spending gimmick at play, noting:

The spending gambit proposed by Chairman Thornberry has already been rejected by Defense Secretary Ashton Carter, who told Senate appropriators that he found it “deeply troubling” that Congress was “gambling” with these funds during a time of war. Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain (R-AZ) has opposed the funding strategy, as have other members of the committee. “You're taking money out of the warfighter's pocket oversees [sic],” Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC) said.

Still, Representatives had the opportunity to improve the legislation through the amendment process. Unfortunately, many amendments that would have markedly improved H.R. 4909 were left on the Rules Committee cutting room floor. Joining with 12 other groups from across the ideological spectrum, NTU urged the Rules Committee to make three important amendments in order:

  • Smith (D-WA), #21: An amendment that would have allowed DOD to proceed with plans to consolidate or close unnecessary U.S. installations. An April report from the Pentagon pleaded for Congress to permit a new round of Base Realignment and Closures (BRAC) to help achieve savings and alleviate their 22 percent excess capacity.
  • Gosar (R-AZ) – Speier (D-CA), #22: This bipartisan amendment would have cut the extra Littoral Combat Ship that the NDAA added over the Pentagon’s original request of two, already more than the one per year ordered in a 2015 directive from Defense Secretary Ash Carter.
  • Mulvaney (R-SC) – Van Hollen (D-MD), #213: Another bipartisan amendment, this would reduce waste in the Overseas Contingency Operations account, a notorious slush fund, by codifying the Office of Management and Budget’s criteria as to what military spending qualifies as “contingency operations.”

Of these three priorities, only the Mulvaney-Van Hollen amendment made it to the floor, where it passed, along with some other good amendments including:

  • Sanford (R-SC), #172: an amendment to track the cost of National Guard flyovers.
  • Burgess (R-TX), Schakowsky (D-IL), et al, #16: A bipartisan amendment requiring a report on departmental auditability progress.
  • Hudson (R-SC), #327: An amendment looking at alternatives to the troubled Ground Combat Vehicle.
  • Gosar (R-AZ), #23: An amendment that would require an improved inventory of DOD property.
  • Thornberry (R-TX), #89: An amendment to reduce the number of full-time staff in the bloated National Security Council.
  • Blumenauer (D-OR), #281: An amendment requiring a report of the lifetime cost of the B-21 aircraft.
  • Walz (D-MN), #344: An amendment that would expand State Adjutants General approvals for Army and Air Force National Guard flyovers to the District of Columbia and U.S. territories.
  • Brat (R-VA), #173: An amendment that would create a process for foreign governments to petition DOD to return surplus property.

Of course, the amendments that passed weren’t all good. Taxpayers were disappointed to see adopted an amendment restricting the Air Forces’ flexibility to respond to fiscal and security priorities, as well as an amendment preventing an open competition for the procurement of the UH-1N Twin Huey replacement. NTU had advised competition as the best way to ensure good value for both taxpayers and the Pentagon, and had applauded the Air Force’s recent decision to move forward with a “full and open” competition. Preventing best practices on the part of a military service is a major step backward in much-needed acquisition reform.

Numerous other worthwhile amendments, on top of the Smith and Gosar-Speiers efforts, never got their moment in the sun. Taxpayers missed out on a Schweikert (R-AZ) amendment that would have preserved the Air Force’s Huey competition, a Sanford amendment to eliminate a corporate welfare provision, a bipartisan amendment to improve whistleblower protections, and even a Ribble (R-WI) amendment that would have repealed the Selective Service – taking a controversial topic and $24 million a year off the table in one fell swoop.

The sum of these actions over the past two days leaves taxpayers with a House bill marginally improved with some good-governance provisions but overall still packed with waste that could break the bank. The Senate plans to take up their version of the NDAA next week, and though the underlying bill doesn’t rely on the same tactics to circumvent the budget caps, Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Senator McCain (R-AZ) has promised to ask for more spending on the floor.

Let’s hope that Senators can hold the line on spending better than their counterparts across the Hill.


NTU Documents on NDAA FY17