Senate’s $740-Billion Defense Bill Is the Wrong Fit in the Time of COVID-19

The Senate Armed Services Committee just completed its work on the fiscal year (FY) 2021 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), the annual defense policy bill typically passed in bipartisan fashion by Congress. Unfortunately, the bill authorizes military spending at an unsustainable level - three-quarters of a trillion dollars - and is the wrong fit at a time when Congress is appropriating trillions of dollars in emergency spending related to the COVID-19 (coronavirus) pandemic and recession.

Although the bill text was not immediately made available by the Committee, Chairman Jim Inhofe (R-OK) and Ranking Member Jack Reed (D-RI) did make an executive summary available, which includes 20 pages of details about the Senate’s FY 2021 NDAA. Chairman Inhofe and Ranking Member Reed both touted the “bipartisan” nature of this year’s NDAA, which passed the Committee on a 25-2 vote. Unfortunately, the major “bipartisan” element of this NDAA is lawmakers’ continued addiction to defense spending levels far beyond what is necessary to make the U.S. safe and stabilize the national debt over the long term.

Below are just a few issues with the Senate’s version of the FY 2021 NDAA.

Three-quarters of a trillion dollars in spending. The Senate’s FY 2021 NDAA authorized $740.5 billion in national defense spending, nearly 10 percent of which ($69 billion) is allocated to an Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) account that is widely regarded as a slush fund (more on OCO below). While lawmakers have correctly noted that these are the levels agreed to by Congress last year in the Bipartisan Budget Act (BBA) of 2019, NTU pointed out at the time of the bill’s passage that BBA 2019 was a terrible budget deal that accelerated the nation’s path to a fiscal crisis. Yes, Congress is authorized to spend up to $740.5 billion on defense in FY 2021. However, Congress is not required to spend that money. Lawmakers can and should pursue a defense policy bill that spends only what is necessary to provide for the nation’s defense. This can certainly be accomplished with a lower topline, and NTU will be looking for Members of Congress to support amendments that responsibly reduce the FY 2021 NDAA’s topline authorization level.

No apparent OCO reforms. NTU wrote just a few weeks ago that “[t]he upcoming FY 2021 NDAA will likely include $69 billion for OCO, which is the statutory cap for security-related OCO funds passed by Congress in the [BBA].” We’re disappointed, but unsurprised to see a $69-billion figure in the Senate’s FY 2021 NDAA. As we have pointed out, the OCO account is meant to meet the military’s immediate and emergency needs overseas, but in recent years has become a bloated fund where lawmakers and the Pentagon can stick projects that should be competing for dollars in the regular budget (which is capped). The executive summary also makes no mention of any transparency or accountability measures to improve the OCO slush fund. Luckily for lawmakers, NTU has a package full of ways to make OCO more accountable to taxpayers. Some of these reform options were specifically meant to be addressed in the FY 2021 NDAA, and we encourage Senators to consider adding them to the package.

Doubling down on a failing F-35 program. For years, NTU and others have written about the Pentagon’s much-maligned F-35 Joint Strike Fighter aircraft program, “the most ambitious and by far the most costly single military-industrial endeavour in recent memory.” NTU Foundation’s Jacob Plott recently highlighted a Government Accountability Office (GAO) report on the failures of the F-35’s Autonomic Logistics Information System (ALIS), which he concluded puts “American taxpayers ... on the hook for a $1.6 trillion aircraft that we cannot effectively operate.” NTU Foundation and the U.S. Public Interest Research Group (PIRG) Education Fund teamed up earlier this year to recommend that DoD cancel plans to purchase additional F-35 Joint Strike Fighters, and instead purchase F-16s and F/A-18s, saving taxpayers $12.8 billion in the process. Instead, the Senate’s FY 2021 NDAA authorizes the purchase of an additional 14 F-35 aircraft above the Trump administration’s request. The total authorization, for 95 Joint Strike Fighter aircraft, will cost taxpayers a total of $9.1 billion. The total costs of this program will likely continue to go up over time, as Congress doubles down year after year on an over-budget program full of unresolved issues and concerns.

Establishing a Pacific Deterrence Initiative = more slush? Leaders of both the Senate Armed Services Committee and the House Armed Services Committee have committed to creating a new fund, called the Pacific Deterrence Initiative (PDI), “to send a strong signal to the Chinese Communist Party that America is deeply committed to defending our interests in the Indo-Pacific.” While there is plenty of space for lawmakers to argue for a robust response to alleged abuse and misconduct by the Chinese Communist Party, it is unclear what the PDI will accomplish other than giving Congress another program to pour taxpayer dollars into. The Senate leaders boast that their version of PDI includes nearly $200 million “above the [President’s] budget request for Indo-Pacific requirements.” It is also worth noting that PDI is modeled off the European Deterrence Initiative (EDI), which is one of many parts of the OCO slush fund unrelated to the military’s actual overseas contingency operations needs. Wendy Jordan of Taxpayers for Common Sense eloquently explains the pitfalls of the EDI approach here. It’s unclear as of now whether Senate Armed Services Committee leaders intend to put PDI in the base budget or in OCO, but either way they are authorizing $1.4 billion for PDI in FY 2021 and nearly quadruple that, $5.5 billion, in FY 2022.

To bureaucracy and beyond with Space Force. The Senate Armed Services Committee’s executive summary has a number of bullet points below its header “Superiority in Space,” and most points suggest the Committee is continuing in earnest to develop, boost, and implement the new Space Force. While the idea of a sixth military branch dedicated to defending America’s security in space may sound exciting, what the first few years of the Space Force have indicated is that the agency is simply adding layers of bureaucracy to activities already undertaken by the existing military branches. NTU Foundation warned of this in March 2019, and so did NTU and 16 other organizations in an open letter to Congress last year. More recently, Dan Grazier at the Project on Government Oversight (POGO) wrote in The American Conservative that “[t]he bureaucratic barriers now established between the Space Force and the actual decisive arms on the ground and at sea will make it more difficult for them to receive the support they need.” His full piece is worth a read, especially since the Space Force is seeking uncommon acquisition authorities that could make this new branch less accountable to taxpayers.

Overall, it’s clear even by the executive summary that the Senate’s FY 2021 NDAA misses the mark. Most concerning of all, Senators appear intent on giving the military the full $740.5 billion they are able to spend, even when the COVID-19 public health and economic emergencies demand that Congress bring some of its regular spending habits to heel. NTU will be working with lawmakers to introduce amendments that reduce the NDAA’s topline and make the OCO slush fund more accountable to taxpayers. Congress can start to right-size the federal budget now, and they should start with this year’s NDAA.