On June 23, 2020, the Senate introduced its version of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) for the fiscal year of 2021. This annual legislation provides funding and authorities to the U.S. military. Since the bill’s introduction, over 700 amendments have been submitted by Senators. Although few amendments will ever make their way to the Senate floor and even fewer will be agreed to, it is prudent to review some of these amendments to see where legislators hit the mark and where they fall short. Some of these amendments took positive steps forward, by advocating for greater transparency and responsible spending cuts, while others tried to promulgate destructive “Buy American” policies.
Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) along with Sens. Chuck Grassley (R-IA), Ron Wyden (D-OR), and Mike Lee (R-UT), introduced an amendment that would greatly boost DoD’s audit efforts, and would cut spending if DoD continues to fail its audit process. This amendment would pressure DoD with spending cuts in the absence of an unqualified audit. In previous years, achieving an unqualified audit opinion has been difficult for DoD, due to the massive size and scope of the agency. However, this amendment would give the process the teeth needed to procure a complete and all-encompassing audit of DoD. Not only could this amendment save taxpayers money, but it would also increase transparency of DoD financial records.
Sen. Sanders introduced another amendment to NDAA that would save taxpayers a lot of money. The aptly named “Reduction in Amount Authorized to be Appropriated for Fiscal Year 2021 by this Act” would prompt a 14-percent spending cut across all DoD agencies, excluding some costs related to personnel, research, and healthcare. NDAA spending for the fiscal year of 2021 is currently set to be an enormous $740.5 billion. While it would be preferable to make more targeted reductions in spending, a proposal to decrease rather than increase the defense budget is a welcomed change of pace for the taxpayer.
Sen. Sanders isn’t the only lawmaker putting forth good amendments. Sen. James Lankford (R-OK), along with Sens. Gary Peters (D-MI) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ), proposed an amendment that would require future regulations to have a 100-word summary posted to regulations.gov. These summaries would describe in plain English the purpose and intent of future regulations, bringing greater transparency and efficiency to an area of government that is unnecessarily convoluted and confusing.
Sen. Lankford proposed another amendment that would support greater transparency between the taxpayers and the government. The amendment, the “Taxpayers Right-to-Know Act,” would require the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) to finish its work on a long-overdue federal program inventory. It is vital that taxpayers are aware of what programs and agencies their money is going to fund, and this amendment helps to bring this to fruition.
Another amendment that would increase transparency and efficiency in our government is by Sen. Joni Ernst (R-IA). This amendment compels OMB to require that agencies submit annual reports on projects that are more than five years behind schedule and more than $1 billion over budget. Agencies that squander this amount of time and money should be held accountable so that future projects may be done more efficiently. These required reports would go a long way to ensuring better governance on big projects.
Not all of the good NDAA amendments deal with spending and transparency, though. Some seek to restore the checks and balances our branches of government have on each other. For example, Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT), along with Sens. Ron Johnson (R-WI), Mitt Romney (R-UT), and Pat Toomey (R-PA), proposed an amendment that would limit the staying power of national emergencies declared by the president. The amendment, titled “the ARTICLE ONE Act,” would end presidential emergency declarations after 30 days unless Congress votes to extend them. In recent decades, executive branches across both parties have been able to exceed their limits by declaring marginal issues as national emergencies. This amendment would bring power back to the legislative branch and help restore Congress’ constitutional “power of the purse.”
Though the previously discussed amendments would be positive steps towards better governance, the same cannot be said for all amendments. One amendment proposed by Sen. Chris Murphy (D-CT) alongside Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and Tammy Baldwin (D-WI), would expand “Buy American” requirements for major defense programs and projects. These requirements will drive up the cost of defense projects, leading to higher spending at the taxpayer’s expense. Congress should focus on making U.S. manufacturers more competitive, instead of making other options uncompetitive.
Another amendment, this one proposed by Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-MI), advocates for similar “Buy American” policies. This amendment would require DoD to provide a report on any foreign product or resource exceptions made for defense projects. This requirement is an unnecessary hurdle that serves only to muddle defense projects that use less expensive materials and save taxpayers money. Legislators should realize that defense spending is already plagued with inefficiencies and waste. Adding “Buy American” requirements serves only to intensify these inefficiencies.
Looking forward, it is uncertain which amendments will ultimately find their way onto the President’s desk in this year’s NDAA. However, it is important to examine and scrutinize these amendments, as many propose good ideas that increase transparency and proper governance. Unfortunately, some of these amendments do not have the taxpayer’s interest in mind.