After months of debate and weeks of angst, the Senate on Wednesday voted 88-11 to finalize plans for a $740 billion authorization bill for the Department of Defense, sending the sweeping military policy measure to the White House for the 61st consecutive year.
The move codifies the annual 2.7% pay raise for troops in 2022, backs $25 billion more in military spending for fiscal 2022 than the White House requested and overhauls how certain sexual misconduct crimes are prosecuted under military rules.
But what the bill doesn’t include has gotten more attention than what it does.
To speed up passage, congressional leaders dropped language to add women to the Selective Service System for potential future conscription, scaled back plans for even more dramatic military justice changes and dumped several other provisions.
Completion of the bill — considered “must pass” legislation by congressional leaders each year because of the hundreds of reauthorization and policy reforms it includes — appeared in doubt as recently as two weeks ago, when Senate lawmakers still had not completed preliminary work usually done in late summer.
That prompted House and Senate Armed Services Committee leaders to ditch the typical conference and amendment process in favor of a simplified compromise bill, frustrating lawmakers from both parties.
But both Republican and Democratic leaders praised the final product as providing key support for the military in an uncertain global environment.
“It addresses a broad range of pressing issues, from strategic competition with China and Russia, to disruptive technologies like hypersonics, [artificial intelligence], and quantum computing, to modernizing our ships, aircraft, and vehicles,” Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Jack Reed, D-R.I., said.
“It provides our forces with the resources and support they need to defend our nation, makes historic reforms to help improve the lives of our service members, and takes important steps to care for their families.”
“While the process has been imperfect, I’m glad that bipartisan work has produced a bill that authorizes an increase in top-line funding for our national defense,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said ahead of a procedural vote Tuesday.
President Joe Biden has signaled he will sign the measure into law in coming days.
More defense spending
Lawmakers’ biggest addition to the defense bill in recent months was arguably the $25 billion in additional military spending.
White House officials and House progressives complained in recent months the money was unnecessary, given significant defense funding plus-ups over the past four years under former President Donald Trump.
But the extra funding found bipartisan backing in both chambers, with supporters pointing to military build-ups by Russia and China. Moderate Democrats said the money was needed to boost research and development spending, and future budget plans from Biden should follow suit.
“We’ve lost a lot of ground to the Chinese while we’ve been focused over the last 20 years on counterterrorism and counterinsurgency, and they’ve caught up in [artificial intelligence], machine learning, hypersonics and a lot of other things,” said Sen. Mark Kelly, D-Ariz., chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee’s panel on emerging threats.
“It’s important to me that we can regain the ground we’ve lost and make sure the Defense Department is well manned and well equipped.”
Sen. Deb Fischer, R-Neb., echoed that sentiment in a floor speech Tuesday.
“The Biden administration originally proposed a top-line defense spending increase … that would not have kept pace with inflation even in a normal year,” she said. “But in a year when it is threatening to spiral out of control, it would have meant an unacceptable cut in resources for our military.
“[This bill] offers an increase of $25 billion on top of President Biden’s proposal, and we came together across party lines to agree to that because it is what our military needs.”
Thanks to the bill’s higher top line, lawmakers are calling for 12 more Boeing-made F/A-18 Super Hornets than the administration requested; five more Boeing F-15EX jets above 12 already planned; and 13 ships total ― including two attack submarines and two destroyers ― for five more than the White House’s budget plan.
Lawmakers also authorized 85 Lockheed Martin-made F-35 aircraft.
The spending total includes parameters for a 2.7% pay increase for all troops starting Jan. 1 and reauthorizes dozens of specialty pays and bonuses military commanders said are needed for recruiting and retention.
With regard to military end strength, the number of Army soldiers would drop by 900 (to 485,000) compared to this year’s levels and the Marine Corps would cut its troop numbers by 2,700 (to 178,500). That’s in line with White House end strength plans.
The Navy’s end strength total would drop by about 900 (to 346,920), about 700 more sailors than the White House requested. The Air Force would see a decrease of about 4,200 personnel (to 329,220), about 1,000 more airmen than the administration requested.
The Space Force end strength would be set at 8,400 guardians.
Lawmakers also included a new Basic Needs Allowance to give additional financial support to some low-income service members. And the measure has language to provide 12 weeks parental leave to all service members following the birth or adoption of a child, standardizing the rule across the services.
The bill authorizes $2 billion above Biden’s request for the Pacific Deterrence Initiative, meant to bolster the military’s posture in the region and deter China, for a total of $7.1 billion.
The bill authorizes $4 billion for the European Deterrence Initiative, to deter Russia by bolstering cooperation with Eastern European allies, an increase over Biden’s $3.4 billion request. Lawmakers added $50 million to Biden’s request for security assistance for Ukraine for a total of $300 million.
All that said, the policy bill only sets priorities. Lawmakers have deadlocked over actual federal spending for fiscal 2022, which began on Oct. 1. The government is operating on a funding patch through mid February, which Congress passed to allow time for further budget negotiations.
To the dismay of some, the bill does not include language requiring women to register with the Selective Service System for a potential future military draft. That proposal was included in earlier versions of the House and Senate authorization bill drafts, but was deemed too controversial for the final measure.
Similarly, advocates for sexual assault victims sparred with chamber leaders over changes made to reforms of the military justice system related to how sexual misconduct cases are prosecuted.
Under the final bill, the Defense Department would be required to create an independent prosecutorial office within each service to handle some serious crimes, including rape, sexual assault, murder, manslaughter and kidnapping.
Last week, House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam Smith, D-Wash., hailed those changes as “a long overdue and crucial set of reforms [that] will dramatically improve the military’s response to the problem of sexual assault within the ranks.”
But Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., had pushed lawmakers to go even further, asking for all serious crimes to be taken out of the traditional military chain of command. She voted against the final measure in protest of the omission.
“[This bill] does not make the necessary changes to the military justice system,” she said in a floor speech Monday. “The change we must make, the change that survivors and veterans have asked for, is to remove all serious non-military crimes from the chain of command.”
Gillibrand, who voted against the NDAA on Wednesday, has vowed to continue the fight for additional reforms next year, when Congress tries to pass the authorization bill for the 62nd consecutive year.
Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.
Joe Gould is senior Pentagon reporter for Defense News, covering the intersection of national security policy, politics and the defense industry.