Breaking down the annual defense bill

by | Sep 29, 2021 | Military, Policy

The National Defense Authorization Act is one of the most important pieces of legislation that goes through Congress as it’s the bill that sets the defense budget for the United States. The 2022 NDAA (the federal government’s fiscal year starts on October 1) is significant as it’s the first one of the Biden presidency, and unsurprisingly it was accompanied by plenty of controversy. 

The House passed its version of the NDAA in a 316-113 vote last week. Here’s what you need to know. 

It’s big 

The NDAA sets the defense budget at $778 billion. That’s $24 billion more than what the White House’s budget request set aside for defense. $740 billion of this goes to the Department of the Defense, with the rest going to nuclear weapons funding at the Department of Energy. 

It was inevitable that Congress would diverge from Biden when it comes to defense spending. The president’s military budget request, which was largely flat compared to the previous year, didn’t make anyone happy. Progressives were disappointed that spending wasn’t cut, while more hawkish voices argued that spending wasn’t raised enough and that with inflation it was actually a decrease. 

As both Republicans and centrist Democrats tend to favor larger defense budgets, those in favor of spending more won.

The major difference was in regard to procurement. The president’s budget cut back on buying new equipment in favor of boosting funds for research and development. The administration was hoping to create a more capable military in the long run by investing in emerging technologies like hypersonic missiles and artificial intelligence, but fewer planes and ships means accepting the risk of a capability shortfall in the short term. Congress wants to spend a lot on new technologies as well, but also increased funding for procurement, including a major boost to shipbuilding.

$778 billion is certainly a lot of money and many would argue it’s too much, although it is a relatively modest portion of the United States’ overall GDP.  

All eyes are on China

While an increase in defense spending may seem odd given that the United States just exited a war, the driving force behind this is China. Although the United States continues to outpace China in defense spending, the fact that things cost less in China means that the People’s Liberation Army tends to get more bang for its buck. When adjusted for purchasing power and labor costs, the gap between the military budgets of the two countries is not as large as it initially seems and has narrowed considerably, although it’s difficult to determine just how much given the lack of transparency when it comes to Chinese defense spending.

Combine China’s growing capabilities with increased tensions between Washington and Beijing on a host of issues, and it’s no surprise that Congress authorized such a large budget.

During the Trump administration and the final years of the Obama administration, the Pentagon started shifting away from the counterinsurgency/counterterrorism operations that characterized America’s wars in the Middle East and focused more on “great power competition”. By great power competition, they mean China and Russia but mostly China. Biden administration officials have signaled that they plan to continue this trend. The recent announcement of AUKUS, a defense pact under which the United States and Britain will provide nuclear submarine technology to Australia, is the latest sign that the United States sees China as a serious military threat. 

There’s more than money

NDAAs pretty much always include provisions that are about more than dollars and cents, and 2022 was no exception. One major change is a requirement for women to register for the draft for the first time in American history. Although such a policy would have been quite controversial five years ago, registering women for the draft has gained more support now that combat roles have been open to women. 

The bill includes a provision from Rep. Veronica Escobar (D-El Paso), who sits on the House Armed Services Committee, authorizing the president to posthumously award the Medal of Honor to Marcelino Serna, a decorated World War One veteran from El Paso. Another provision introduced by Escobar that made it into the NDAA prohibits privately-funded National Guard deployments. This was written in response to South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem sending National Guard troops to the border using money from a billionaire donor. The NDAA also gives control of the DC National Guard to the mayor of Washington, DC, similar to the authority that state governors enjoy. Currently, the DC National Guard is solely controlled by the president, and there were issues with the speed of their response to the January 6 Insurrection. 

Perhaps the most important non-fiscal part of the NDAA is the reform of the military justice system in regard to sexual assault. In the House bill, cases involving sexual assault will be removed from the chain of command and handled by independent military prosecutors. This is a major change that activists and members of Congress have long advocated for. While the Pentagon has been reluctant to do this, it appears that has changed as a number of leaders including Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin have endorsed the move.

It passed with bipartisan support – and opposition

The 2022 NDAA passed with a majority of both Republicans and Democrats voting in favor. NDAAs usually garner bipartisan support. However, there were also a number of members from both sides of the aisle opposed to the bill. Some Democrats opposed the high price tag, arguing that spending billions more than what the president requested was unnecessary. Meanwhile, many on the right were less concerned about money and more concerned with social issues. The House Freedom Caucus complained about “critical race theory” and “forcing our daughters to sign up for the draft” and urged its members to vote no. 

Ultimately, 38 Democrats and 75 Republicans voted against the NDAA. 

Now it goes to the Senate

Although the House has passed the NDAA, it still needs to pass the Senate and the Senate Armed Services Committee already has its own version. While the two chambers seem to be in broad agreement on a number of issues, such as the budget topline, there are still areas where they clash. 

One point of contention between the House and Senate is the F-35 stealth fighter, a massive (and controversial) defense program. While the F-35 does represent a major leap in capability, especially when it comes to its sensors, the high sustainment costs are a major concern. The House bill slightly trims the F-35’s funding for 2022 but threatens major cuts if costs cannot be brought under control, although Rep. Marc Veasey (D-Fort Worth) did provide some breathing room by adding an amendment that gives the services until 2028 to reach the affordability targets. The Senate version goes in the opposite direction, adding six additional F-35s to the 2022 budget and allocating $1.7 billion to upgrade older F-35s. 

It will also be interesting to see how the Senate ultimately decides to handle the issue of sexual assault, as its bill contains competing proposals. The House’s decision to remove sexual assault cases from the chain of command may significantly influence what the Senate decides to do. 

Photo: Lennart Preiss/Getty Images

Washington Correspondent | + posts

William serves as the Washington Correspondent for the Texas Signal, where he primarily writes about Congress and other federal issues that affect Texas. A graduate of Colorado College, William has worked on Democratic campaigns in Texas, Colorado, and North Carolina. He is an internet meme expert.

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