Defense bill delay won't harm national security, expert says

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A series of political fights has led to a delay in the signing and implementation of the National Defense Authorization Act, the massive defense budget and policy bill that has been passed annually for 59 consecutive years. In the unlikely event the legislation doesn’t become law before the end of the current legislative session, the next Congress would have to pick it up and start all over with a new bill. That bill would again have to pass both chambers and receive the president’s signature.  

The first big snag came when President Trump followed through with his pledge to veto the legislation, sending it back to Capitol Hill. The House mustered the two-thirds majority needed to override the veto, sending it to the Senate. But Senator Bernie Sanders said he would filibuster an override vote unless Republican leadership agreed to a stand-alone vote on increasing COVID relief checks from $600 to $2,000. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnel blocked a vote on the increased checks and complicated the measure by tying it to other demands from Mr. Trump that Democrats would not accept: the repeal of a liability shield for tech companies and the establishment of a commission on voter fraud.

McConnell still expects to bring a vote on the NDAA to the Senate floor before the end of the current Congress, which is likely to result in the first override of a veto by Mr. Trump. But Todd Harrison, director of Defense Budget Analysis and director of the Aerospace Security Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said Americans needn’t worry that the country’s national defense is in jeopardy if the NDAA is delayed by a few weeks.

“Ultimately, the NDAA is a policy bill, not a funding bill,” said Harrison, who pointed out the actual funding for the Pentagon was included in the government spending bill the president recently signed. The NDAA sets the budget and policies for the Defense Department but does not appropriate funds. 

In short, “If the NDAA is delayed, it will not harm our national security in any irreparable way,” Harrison said. 

The NDAA does include a provision for 3% pay raises for troops, but if that’s not passed, a pay increase will take effect regardless, Harrison said. 

That doesn’t mean there wouldn’t be any ramifications of not having the NDAA. For example, the NDAA would allow priority housing for military spouses who provide daycare services. The NDAA would also provide pay increases for military officers who work in health professions, critical positions in the middle of a deadly pandemic. The NDAA also helps deliver needed equipment for specific projects. 

It’s not the first time a president has vetoed the NDAA. In 2015, President Barack Obama vetoed the NDAA over concerns about funding caps, something that became moot when legislation passed to raise those caps. A modified version of the bill was signed into law a month later. 

But Mr. Trump’s veto of the NDAA is symbolically significant, not only because vetoes are rare and even more rarely overridden, but because the president’s rationale behind the veto isn’t about defense policy. Mr. Trump vetoed the legislation primarily over his frustrations with Section 230, a law shielding social media and other online platforms from being held liable for third-party posts. 

“That puts a bit of a stain on President Trump’s legacy as he’s leaving office, that Congress by large, bipartisan supermajorities override him on this key of piece of legislation,” Harrison said.

But it also doesn’t help the president’s self-proclaimed image as one of the most pro-military presidents in history. 

“This veto override, and especially given this context that he vetoed a defense bill about something that wasn’t a defense issue, it does undercut the narrative he’s tried to craft about being a president that’s strong on defense,” Harrison said. 

A Senate vote to override the NDAA veto is teed up for this weekend. 

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