Defense Bill Recap

Rep. Beto O'Rourke
Jun 29, 2017 · 6 min read


We finished work on the House defense bill (or National Defense Authorization Act NDAA) last night at midnight, and at just 14 hours it was one of the quickest defense markups in recent history. It’s worth noting that the entire process is done in public, shown on CSPAN and live streamed over the web (in contrast to the Senate defense write up which took place at the same time, behind closed doors and in secret.)

Have to begin by saying some really nice but true things: The people I serve with from both parties are, in most cases, doing their best to ensure that we are supporting our service members, being good stewards of taxpayer resources and providing for the national defense. We just don’t always agree on the best way to do it. 94% of the debate was civil, policy-focused and productive. There were some unfortunate moments — like when a colleague argued against allowing transgender Americans from serving in the military — but all in all it was an encouraging display of bipartisanship in an increasingly polarized Congress.

That work was aided — and honestly, in many cases done almost completely by — incredible professional staff from the committee and in our office Frank Pigulski and Mark Walden who always made sure I had the best information on the amendments we voted on and who helped negotiate with the committee our most important amendments — more than once snatching victory from the jaws of defeat by finding common sense workarounds to tough policy differences that arose between our office, the committee and other members.

But I must also say this: while we focused on important issues — like benefits, rocket engines, number of ships in the fleet and the future of our military in space — there was precious little conversation about the wars we are fighting today. Mere minutes in those 14 hours were spent on defining a strategy for the wars we’re fighting, assessing our progress (or lack thereof) and ensuring we have facts to make informed decisions as we prosecute those wars, understanding who it is we’re fighting (and under what legal justification), and guaranteeing that Congress, the press and the public know what we’re doing around the world in the name of the United States of America.

We do our service members, our country and the world in which we operate a grave disservice by not owning our responsibilities and having the tough conversations and making the tough decisions necessary to produce the best outcomes for all concerned. While I was frustrated in my attempts to make progress on these issues in Committee last night, there is more I can do from the floor of the House with members of both parties. I look forward to doing that.

Here’s a quick recap:

• There were over 1,500 legislative proposals from members of the Armed Services Committee and ultimately 330 of them were offered as amendments.
• $621 billion was authorized in base Pentagon spending and $74.5 for “Overseas Contingency Operations” or OCO (read: an accounting gimmick used to create a slush fund for defense priorities, much of which should be in the base budget, but is able to slip through under the auspices of “war funding” (and who can be against funding our wars?)
• Army end strength of 486,000 active duty, which is 10,000 soldiers more than currently authorized.

Here are some provisions that we worked on:

1. War casualties report: will require an annual public report on combatant and noncombatant deaths caused by U.S. forces in both areas of active hostilities and outside of areas of active hostilities. As simple as this sounds, it was a bear to get into the bill through an amendment — and I’m grateful for the committee staff, our man on the ground Frank Pigulski and Emerging Threats Committee Chair Elise Stefanik for working this through. This passed as an amendment.

2. Associated Forces Notification: Requires congressional notification and legal justification when the DoD changes the list of associated forces with Al Qaeda and the Taliban under the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force. Essentially, we are at war throughout the larger Middle East using the 2001 AUMF which was passed in the wake of the 9/11. Presidents Bush, Obama and Trump have had to justify these wars against persons and groups other than Al-Qaeda and the Taliban by claiming they are killing “associated forces” (e.g. Al Shahab in Somalia). I wanted to know who those associated forces are and I wanted Congress to be notified when more associated forces are added to the list. This amendment was ruled out of order — apparently the committee feels that just requesting this information brings us into conflict with the House Foreign Affairs Committee. Link to clip:

3. Mental Health Examination: Requires that service members receive a mental health examination before they transition out of the military. This is another effort to reduce veteran suicide and help treat service members for any injuries or conditions caused by their service. This passed as an amendment.

4. Veteran’s Trust Fund: Establishes a general trust fund upon commencement of any war or authorization for use of military force. These funds would be used strictly for medical care, disability compensation, and veteran care for service members who were on active duty during that conflict.

Essentially — we are not accounting for — and therefore not paying — the true costs of war, including what we have to spend to ensure that we have the physical and mental health resources to care for our veterans as well as the research and innovation investments that will cure or mitigate the unique conditions that arise from service (e.g. Agent Orange, Gulf War Syndrome, PTSD, Traumatic Brain Injury, Military Sexual Trauma, etc.). Because this amendment would require help from other committees (including Ways and Means because of tax implications) I had to withdraw the amendment. Link to clip:

5. Presidential Policy Guidance Report: Requires congressional notification whenever the administration makes a change to the Presidential Policy Guidance (PPG) for procedures approving direct action against terrorist targets located outside the U.S. and areas of active hostilities. The PPG is important because it set out a set of checks and balances for determining who we kinetically action (that’s literally the term a defense official used instead of “killed”), and Congress needs to stay updated on what this process is. This was adopted in the bill’s base language.

6. Facilities Sustainment, Restoration, and Modernization Account: Increases the amount of money in the Facilities Sustainment, Restoration, and Modernization (FSRM) account. This account helps repair and modernize military facilities. When I talked with Fort Bliss about priorities for NDAA, they identified funding to restore and maintain their infrastructure as their most important item. Here’s just one example: last year Fort Bliss needed $121 million for infrastructure at the installation, but only received $77 million. The maintenance backlog at our installation alone has grown to $250 million. I worked to ensure there was a substantial increase in the funding for this account relative to what was requested to help address this backlog, which would help repair buildings around the country. This was adopted in the bill’s base language.

7. Border Wall: Prevents any DOD funds from being used to plan or build a wall along our border. As the U.S.-Mexico border becomes increasingly militarized, and as the Administration continues to search for money to pay for a proposed wall, this amendment will ensure that it does not come from Pentagon resources. This passed as an amendment. Link to clip:

8. NIE/JWA Report Language: Encourages the Army to continue to use Fort Bliss for Network Integration Exercises and Joint Warfighting Assessments. These events are valuable for the Army to test and evaluate new equipment and have avoided costs of $1.8 billion since 2011. This passed as an amendment.

9. Castner Range: I was able to get in language that paves way for forever preserving Castner Range, a former military artillery range that El Pasoans have been trying to save since the 1960s. My amendment prevents this beautiful landscape, which includes 7000 acres of some of West Texas’ highest peaks and encompasses three ecosystems, from being developed. This is an important step toward conserving this national treasure, which includes some of the most unique cultural, historical, and natural resources in Texas, and tells an important part of the American story.

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