By Matt Vallone, Director of Research and Analysis
Main Story: The National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) in Peril
Last week saw a fairly significant marker in terms of this year’s defense authorization and appropriations process. Breaking with precedent, the Department of Defense decided to reprogram up to $1 billion dollars in funding to support the construction of a wall along the southern border, ignoring objections from Congress. This complicates an already contentious NDAA process. Between potential disputes over topline spending and the ongoing fight over the border wall, it is possible that this year may mark the first time in fifty-nine years that Congress fails to pass an NDAA. Such a failure would create risks for new programs and present potential obstacles for a Department long-accustomed to receiving Congressional direction from the NDAA.
The NDAA has long resisted the general trend of Congress towards stasis and partisan infighting. While other authorization bills have been stagnant (State Department authorization legislation has not been passed since 2003), each year since 1961 the leadership of HASC and SASC has found a way to get the bill through both chambers and signed into law. However, this year’s bill will face two major controversies that endanger passage – a dispute over funding levels and a fight over the border wall. While it is too early to make predictions, these issues have the potential to mark the end of the annual passing of the NDAA.
First, given the deep spending cuts proposed to non-defense spending in the President’s FY2020 budget request, it is likely that there will be a significant fight over spending levels between the Democratic House and the White House. Further, even within the Democratic majority there will be major decision over funding levels. The failure of House Democrats to come to agreement on a budget is an inauspicious beginning to this year’s appropriations process. This will complicate passage of the NDAA, as the longer it takes for Democrats to agree to a topline defense number, the longer HASC will need to wait to move forward on the NDAA. It is unlikely that Chairman Smith would move to a mark-up without an understanding of what the House topline numbers will be in negotiations with the Senate and White House.
All of that will then be wrapped up in a fight over non-defense spending that promises to be particularly contentious. While there is a possible solution wherein both committees pass their bills with differing funding levels and then await a budget deal to dictate their conference committee resolution, that too is dependent on the funding fight being resolved this year. Such an outcome is far from guaranteed.
The second major obstacle that the NDAA will face is the ongoing fight over the southern border wall. The Pentagon has become deeply enmeshed in the administration’s border policies in a manner guaranteed to inflame tension with Congressional Democrats. The recent decision to ignore Congressional disapproval and proceed with reprogramming funding sets up a scenario where the border wall fight will be almost impossible to extricate from decisions regarding DoD funding for FY2020. The President’s budget requests money to “make whole” military construction projects raided for the wall but it is extremely difficult to see a scenario where House Democrats agree to legislation that provides said funding without blocking off any possibility that additional funds can be transferred to wall funding going forward. It is equally difficult to see the White House (or even the Republican Senate) agreeing to such limitations. While that fight may take the shape of riders to appropriations bills, it is also possible it could end up in the NDAA. Such a fight would endanger passage of the NDAA to an equal degree this year.
We will continue to monitor the authorization and appropriations process and interested observers should begin thinking through how failure to pass an NDAA might have repercussions on programs and policies of interest.
Avascent recently posted a podcast featuring Research Associate Hamilton Cook and I discussing the outcomes and implications of this possibly being the first year in fifty-nine years that Congress fails to pass an NDAA. I’d encourage readers to download it and subscribe.
House Activity – The House failed to override the President’s veto of a resolution blocking his national emergency declaration to fund the wall along the Southern border.
Senate Activity – The Senate is hoping to complete work on legislation providing emergency funding for states facing natural disasters, particularly flooding in the Midwest. In addition, the Senate voted down legislation brought forward by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell that would have supported the ‘Green New Deal’ proposed by liberals in the House and Senate.
- 4/2 ‘FY20 National Defense Authorization Budget Request for the Army and the Air Force’, Full Committee Hearing, 2118 Rayburn, 10am
- 4/2 ‘Examining the Role of the Commander in Sexual Assault’, Subcommittee on Military Personnel Hearing, 2118 Rayburn, 2pm
- 4/3 ‘Non-Member Day’, Full Committee Hearing, 2118 Rayburn, 9am
- 4/3 ‘FY20 Priorities for National Security Space Programs’, Subcommittee on Strategic Forces Hearing, 2118 Rayburn, 145pm
- 4/3 ‘Reviewing DoD Strategy, Policy, and Programs for Countering Weapons of Mass Destruction’, Subcommittee on Intelligence and Emerging Threats and Capabilities Hearing, 2212 Rayburn, 230pm
- 4/4 ‘Navy and Marine Corps Tactical Aviation and Ground Modernization’, Subcommittee on Tactical and Land Forces Hearing, 2118 Rayburn, 10am
- 4/4 ‘Mismanaged Military Housing Programs: What is the Recovery Plan?’, Subcommittee on Readiness Hearing, 2212 Rayburn, 1030am
- 4/2 ‘Nominations – Wolters – Townsend’, Full Committee Hearing, SD-G50 Dirksen, 930am
- 4/2 ‘Army Modernization’, Subcommittee on AirLand Hearing, SR-232A Russell, 3pm
- 4/3 ‘Missile Defense Policies and Programs’, Subcommittee on Strategic Forces Hearing, SR-222 Russell, 230pm
- 4/3 ‘Navy and Marine Corps Aviation Programs’, Subcommittee on Seapower Hearing, SR-232A Russell, 3pm
- 4/4 ‘Posture of the Department of the Air Force’, Full Committee Hearing, SD-G50 Dirksen, 930am
- 4/2 ‘Defense Intelligence Agency and National Geospatial Agency (CLOSED)’, H-405 Capitol, 11am
- 4/2 ‘U.S. Air Force Budget Request for FY 2020’, H-140 Capitol, 3pm
- 4/3 ‘Defense Health Programs’, 2359 Rayburn, 3pm
- 4/3 ‘Review of the FY2020 Budget Request for the Defense Health Program’, 192 Dirksen, 930am
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