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The NDAA shouldn’t be the vehicle for national security changes

Sixty years in a row: Congress has passed a National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) every year since 1961. The armed services committees are models of legislative effectiveness, finding ways to balance liberals and conservatives, competing service interests, and presidential demands. On the five occasions when presidents have vetoed the initial bill, the managers met right away and reported a measure minus the targeted sections, and got the new bill signed into law.

In fact, we don’t need an NDAA. We could still recruit and pay troops, buy weapons, fly aircraft and fight wars using appropriations. The NDAA is only required to change basic law, such as repealing “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” to create organizations such as the Space Force, or to give a bigger pay hike than the standard formula in law. The appropriators can and do ignore the budget figures in the NDAA.

The process started in 1959, when the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Sen. Richard Russell (D-Ga.), slipped Section 412 into his panel’s military construction authorization bill. Russell was unhappy with the penny-pinching appropriations committee, and several of his members — including Sens. Stuart Symington (D-Mo.) and Lyndon Johnson (D-Texas) — wanted to run for president in 1960 on a platform of closing the “bomber gap” and “missile gap” with the Soviet Union.

Section 412 was a power grab, requiring authorization of major weapons before an appropriation was in order. Before 1961, the armed services panels essentially were real estate committees; afterwards, they became policy committees. In 1963, Congress required authorization of all major weapons and research and development (R&D). In 1971, they added personnel end strengths and, in 1983, operations and maintenance, thus requiring authorization of the whole defense budget. Over the decades, the NDAA has been used to set policy on overseas deployments, nuclear weapons and relations with allies.

The first NDAA was on a single page. By 1969, it required 10 pages. But over the years it has become a Christmas tree of micromanagement provisions. Last year’s law filled 1,137 pages. 

Maybe it takes that many pages of legal terminology to keep the Pentagon running properly. My gripe is less with its length than its content. The NDAA also has become a foreign policy bill and has accelerated the militarization of American foreign policy.

While the House and Senate leadership consider the NDAA a “must pass” bill, they avoid spending time on foreign aid or most other foreign policy. Congress hasn’t passed a foreign aid authorization bill since 1986 or a State Department authorization bill since 2002. The foreign policy committees are weak and ineffective except for sanctions bills.

So the NDAA became the vehicle for major changes in security assistance during the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. The Pentagon provided over 20 percent of U.S. development aid for several years. U.S. commanders chose, planned, funded and oversaw projects building facilities, water projects and roads. They may have had good reasons for these activities, but they hadn’t been trained for them.

In 2018, Congress added the Better Utilization of Investments Leading to Development Act (BUILD Act) to the NDAA. The 2019 NDAA included 94 pages of new laws “relating to foreign nations” — Title XII — as well as sanctions on North Korea and Intelligence Authorization Acts for three years (the intelligence committees also have problems passing their own bills).

Each year the NDAA managers review dozens of foreign policy amendments. These measures are then conferenced by the defense committees and often followed up by the defense committees. It’s impossible to avoid a military perspective on such foreign policy legislation. American foreign policy is being militarized by osmosis with the defense committees.

To begin to reverse this trend, it would help if the NDAA managers practiced more restraint. It would help if the foreign policy committees undertook to resume crafting authorization bills for foreign aid and the State Department.

It would also help if Congress created a “National Security Budget,” combining defense and international affairs. Right now, international affairs and homeland security and veterans programs must compete with domestic programs for health, education, transportation, the environment and justice because they are all in the “non-defense” category of discretionary spending.

Far better would be a division between national security and domestic programs. Then budget planners in both branches could assess the right mix of defense and international affairs programs separate from domestic priorities. Best of all, this would add and strengthen civilian perspectives to national security problems.

Charles A. Stevenson, Ph.D., teaches American foreign policy at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS), where he is senior adviser to the American Foreign Policy Program. As a Senate staffer for 22 years, he worked on the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). He is the author of “Congress at War.”

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