“Earlier this week, the White House issued a Statement of Administration Policy threatening to veto the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2016 (NDAA), critical national security legislation that provides vital authorities our troops need to defend the nation. This veto threat hardly comes as a surprise. After all, the President has threatened to veto, for some reason or another, the defense authorization bill every year since 2011. The White House’s compilation of complaints is long, but it is woefully short on substance.
“The Statement of Administration Policy makes clear that the true basis of the Administration’s veto threat has nothing to do with defense. In objecting to the use of $38 billion in Overseas Contingency Operations funds, or OCO, to meet the President’s request of $612 billion, the statement said the President ‘will not fix defense without fixing non-defense spending.’ It is simply incomprehensible that as America confronts the most diverse and complex array of crises around the world since the end of World War II, that a President would veto funding for our military to prove a political point.
“The threats we confront today are far more serious than they were a year ago, and significantly more so than when the Congress passed the Budget Control Act in 2011. That legislation arbitrarily capped defense spending and established the mindless mechanism of sequestration, which was triggered in 2013. As a result, with worldwide threats rising, we as a nation are on a course to cut nearly $1 trillion of defense spending over ten years.
“Every single military and national security leader who has testified before the Armed Services Committee this year has denounced sequestration and urged its repeal as soon as possible. Indeed, each of our military service chiefs testified that continued defense spending at sequestration levels would put American lives at risk.
“This NDAA does not end sequestration, unfortunately. Believe me, our Committee would have done so if the NDAA were capable of it, but it is not. The NDAA is a policy bill. It deals only with defense issues. And it does not spend a dollar. It provides the Department of Defense and our men and women in uniform with the authorities and support they need to defend the nation.
“The NDAA fully supports President Obama’s budget request of $612 billion for national defense, which is $38 billion above the spending caps established by the Budget Control Act. In other words, this legislation gives the President every dollar of budget authority he requested. The difference is our legislation follows the Senate Budget Resolution and funds that $38 billion increase through Overseas Contingency Operations, or OCO, funds.
“This was not my preferred option. That’s why the Committee included a special transfer authority in this legislation that allows the Department of Defense to transfer the additional $38 billion from OCO to the base budget in the event that legislation is enacted that increases the statutory limitations on discretionary defense and non-defense spending in proportionately equal amounts. This was the product of a bipartisan compromise, and it was the most we could do in the NDAA to recognize the need for a broader fiscal agreement without denying funding for our military right now.
“I have heard a number of misconceptions about OCO funding from my Democratic colleagues, many of which have been fed by this Administration’s rhetoric. While OCO is not the ideal way to fund our national defense, technical or budgetary consequences to using OCO funding have been greatly exaggerated. OCO is authorized and appropriated on an annual basis – just like base funding. OCO funding is allocated to the same DOD accounts as base funding. In fact, the NDAA purposefully placed the additional $38 billion of OCO funding in the same accounts and activities for which the President himself requested OCO money. These activities have historically had a large share of OCO funding and the account has been designated by the President as OCO eligible in the past. And there are no laws that make OCO funding expire any differently than base funding.
“The White House threat to veto this legislation over OCO spending and the desire for increases in non-defense spending is misguided and irresponsible. With global threats rising, it simply makes no sense to oppose a defense policy bill—legislation that spends no money but is full of vital authorities that our troops need—for a reason that has nothing to do with national defense spending. The NDAA should not be treated as a hostage in a budget negotiation.
“The political reality is that the Budget Control Act, which the President signed, remains the law of the land. So faced with the choice between OCO money and no money, I choose OCO, and multiple senior military leaders testified before the Armed Services Committee this year that they would make the same choice for one simple reason: This is $38 billion of real money that our military desperately needs, and without which our top military leaders have said they cannot succeed.
“The bottom line is this: the NDAA authorizes $612 billion for national defense. This is the amount requested by the President and justified by his own national security strategy. If the President and some of my colleagues oppose the NDAA due to concerns over non-defense spending, I suspect they will have a very difficult time explaining and justifying that choice to Americans who increasingly cite national security as a top concern.
“The Statement of Administration Policy raises specious concerns with the sweeping defense acquisition reforms in the NDAA. For instance, the White House asserted that transferring some acquisition authority back to the services is somehow inconsistent with the Secretary of Defense’s exercise of authority, direction, and control over all of DOD’s programs and activities. I could not disagree more with this assertion. What this legislation does is merely switch who does what in certain circumstances from different people who all directly report to and serve under the authority, direction and control of the Secretary of Defense.
“In this legislation, for a limited number of programs to start with, the Secretary of Defense will look to the Service Secretaries directly for management of these acquisition programs rather than looking to the Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology, and Logistics (AT&L). This is not usurpation of the Secretary of Defense’s power. It is called streamlining of authorities and reducing layers of unnecessary bureaucracy. There is a section in the legislation that would allow the Secretary of Defense to continue to rely on more layers of management if he chooses but only if he certifies to Congress that this make sense. There simply is not any undermining of the Secretary of Defense’s authority in this legislation.
“Another concern raised has been that the transfer of milestone decision authority to the services would reduce the Secretary of Defense’s ability – through AT&L – to guard against unwarranted optimism in program planning and budget formulation. Unwarranted optimism is indeed a plague on acquisition, and there is not a monopoly of that in the services. Nothing in this bill overrides the requirement to use better cost estimates from the Office of Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation. In fact, new incentives and real penalties imposed on the services in this legislation are designed to put some of this optimism in check.
“Some in the White House and the Department of Defense want to perpetuate the absurd fiction that the current system is working. Even after a wave of 25 program cancellations by Secretary Gates, all of the programs that are left under AT&L management have over $200 billion in cost overruns. AT&L is trying to have it both ways: claiming credit for all the improvements in the acquisition system while blaming the services for its long list of failures. This is exactly the problem this legislation is trying to address: blurred lines of accountability inside the defense acquisition system that allow its leaders to evade responsibility for results.
“The reality is that in the modern world, the AT&L management process takes too long and costs too much. For example, an Army study looked at the time it would take to go through all of the AT&L reviews and buy nothing. What was the answer? Ten years. Ten years to buy nothing. The Government Accountability Office looked at the much-vaunted Milestone reviews that the Office of the Secretary of Defense is touting as a success. Just one review takes on average two years. A similar review at the Missile Defense Agency takes about three months. Our adversaries are not shuffling paper. They are building weapon systems. It is time for us to do the same.
“I find it disappointing, or maybe just outright laughable, that the Statement of Administration Policy expressed concern about the Armed Services Committee’s decision to downsize and streamline the bureaucratic overhead of the Pentagon, while at the same time complaining that we are not letting them downsize the fighting forces. Put simply, the Administration wants to keep more Pentagon bureaucrats while drawing down our forces and cutting military equipment like fighter aircraft.
“It simply makes no sense that we should increase the Army staff by 60% over a decade, and then turn around and slash our Army Brigade Combat Teams from 45 to 32.
“The Administration cites reductions already taking place in headquarters activities, but ignores the fact that the Air Force is trying to achieve those reductions by playing shell game: creating two new organizations and shifting people around. Moving the deck chairs on the Titanic did not keep the ship from sinking, and shifting people around in a game of ‘hide the headquarters staff’ will not keep our national security from sinking under the weight of bureaucratic empires.
“As the White House asks the Senate to preserve bloated staffs, the Statement of Administration Policy laments the Committee’s effort to address dangerous strike fighter capacity shortfalls across the services. As deliveries of the F-35 have continued to fall short of projections, the Air Force has continued to drain combat power. Senior Air Force officials have repeatedly testified to the alarming reality that their Service is the smallest in its history, with readiness at very low levels, all while our airmen perform ongoing combat operations in the Middle East, theater support packages in Eastern Europe, presence and reassurance to our allies in the Asia-Pacific, and maintaining a strong strategic nuclear deterrence posture. The misallocation of airpower resources over the past six years, coupled with the mismanagement of very expensive aircraft weapons system procurement programs, places America’s national security interests in jeopardy and endangers the lives of our men and women in uniform.
“Our military commanders know this is true. That’s why for example, the Chief of Naval Operations and the Commandant of the Marine Corps included in their unfunded priorities lists requests for 12 F-18 Super Hornets for the Navy and six F-35B Joint Strike Fighters for the Marine Corps. The NDAA funds these requests because senior Navy and Marine Corps leaders have repeatedly testified to significant strike fighter shortfalls in the maritime services due to unanticipated increased combat operations in the Middle East, aging and obsolete fighter aircraft, and significant delays in the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter delivery schedule. Bizarrely, the White House has apparently disregarded that testimony, and instead labels these requests for more combat power from our military commanders ‘unnecessary.’
“The Statement of Administration Policy statement opposes the strong oversight measures put in place by the NDAA on the Ford-class aircraft carrier program. The Administration objects to a provision in this legislation that reduces the cost cap for the USS John F. Kennedy by $100 million from $11.498 billion to $11.398 billion. But in the budget request, the Navy estimated the cost of this ship at $11.348 billion. In other words, the NDAA still provides a buffer of $50 million. The provision simply locks in the savings the Department has advertised, which come after more than $2 billion in cost growth to CVN-79. Unless the budget request is misleading or inaccurate, this provision should not result in reduced capability or a breach of the cost cap as the Administration claims.
“It is also unfortunate that the Administration does not recognize importance of conducting full ship shock trials on the USS Gerald R. Ford, known as CVN-78. With the abundance of new technology, including the catapult, arresting gear, and radar, as well as the reliance on electricity rather than steam to power key systems, there continues to be a great deal of risk in this program. Testing CVN–78 will not only improve the design of future carriers, but also reduce the costs associated with retrofitting engineering changes. Absent this provision, the Navy will delay by up to 7 years full ship shock trials and shift the test from the lead ship in the class (CVN–78) to the second ship (CVN–79). That poses the risk that CVN–78 will deploy and potentially fight without this testing, putting the lives of our sailors at risk.
“The Statement of Administration Policy also raised objections to a number of provisions related to military personnel.
“For instance, the Administration bemoans the fact that the Committee did not adopt its plan to raise existing TRICARE fees and implement new fees for Medicare-eligible retirees and their family members. The so-called Consolidated Health Plan would not have created a modern, value-based health care system. And the Administration made no attempt at all to improve access to care, quality of care, or beneficiary satisfaction. The NDAA, on the other hand, addresses those issues and more without raising enrollment fees or creating new fees.
“The White House expressed concern about provisions in the NDAA that call for a plan to privatize commissaries and a two-year pilot program at no fewer than five commissaries in the largest markets of the commissary system to assess the feasibility and advisability of the plan. But the rationale is confusing. The Administration claims that ‘there is an independent study under way to determine whether privatization is a feasible option and we should wait for those results prior to making any policy changes.’ Section 634 of the NDAA for FY15 did require a comprehensive review by an independent organization of the management, food and pricing options of the commissary system. But in that section, there was no requirement to study the feasibility of privatization of the commissary system. It is also curious that the Administration warns against implementing a pilot program on privatization before the results of an independent study, while at the same time encouraging the Congress to adopt their own proposed pilot program.
“The White House’s policy statement reflects the President’s feckless policy toward Russia. Despite the advice of nearly every statesman and policy expert that has appeared before the Armed Services Committee in recent months – Henry Kissinger, George Shultz, Madeleine Albright, Zbig Brzezinski, and others – and against the advice of both his Secretary of State and Secretary of Defense, the President has refused to provide defensive lethal assistance to Ukraine. The President’s continued inaction, for fear of provoking Russia, is seen by Putin as weakness and invites the very aggression we seek to avoid.
“The Ukrainian people aren’t asking for U.S. troops. They are simply asking for the right tools to defend themselves and their country. Those are the tools the NDAA would provide. The NDAA doesn’t force the President to provide lethal assistance to Ukraine. Trust me, if there were a way to do that, it would be in the bill.
“The President has a decision to make on providing lethal assistance to Ukraine – a decision that has consequences far beyond whether or not the President obligates the full amount of funds authorized in the NDAA for assistance to Ukraine, and a decision that is long overdue. The freedom of the Ukrainian people and the very existence of Ukraine as a democratic state may depend on his decision. President Putin, and his desire to restore a kind of imperial dominance over Russia's so-called near abroad, poses a geopolitical challenge not only to Russia's neighbors but to our entire vision of Europe whole, free, and at peace. We did not seek this challenge from Putin’s Russia, nor did we deserve it. But we must rise to it all the same. This kind of aggressive, neo-imperial behavior is fundamentally at odds with the core principles of the rules-based international order that all of us have sacrificed so mightily to build.
“Making matters worse, the Statement of Administration Policy seeks flexibility to continue our nation’s dependence on Russian rocket engines. The NDAA would put an end to this dependence by 2019 and stop hundreds of millions of dollars from going to Vladimir Putin and his cronies. It eliminates a launch subsidy that the commander of Air Force Space Command has stated impedes fair competition. And it directs the Administration to stop playing games, and develop a domestic rocket engine – not a new rocket system – to replace the Russian RD-180.
“The Statement of Administration Policy strongly objects to measures in the NDAA to enhance the support of our Armed Services to secure the southern border of the United States. The statement makes clear this Administration simply does not appreciate that this is a national security imperative.
“In testimony before the Armed Services Committee in March of this year, General John Kelly, the Commander of U.S. Southern Command, testified: ‘With the amount of drugs and people that move across our southwest border, it doesn’t seem all that secure to me.’ General Kelly went on to state that the threat of terrorists crossing our southern border is ‘extremely serious’ and that ‘if a terrorist or almost anyone wants to get into our country, they just pay the fare.’
“That’s why the NDAA would provide $45 million for Operation Phalanx, increasing border security operations by the National Guard along the southern border and boosting aerial surveillance of the region by up to 60 percent. To date, Operation Phalanx has directly contributed to more than 96,000 apprehensions along the border and the interdiction of more than 282,000 pounds of drugs destined for our communities. The legislation directs the Secretary of Defense to provide up to $75 million in additional assistance to Customs and Border Protection operations to secure the southern border, potentially including the deployment of personnel, surveillance assets, and intelligence support. And the NDAA would authorize an additional $50 million to address U.S. Southern Command's unfunded priorities to increase surveillance and interdiction operations in Central America, a primary transit point for illicit trafficking into the United States.
“Finally, I am disappointed by the Administration’s puzzling response to provisions in the NDAA related to the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay.
“The Administration argues that the NDAA’s limitations placed on Guantanamo transfers are unnecessary and beyond the scope of congressional authority. This is false. Congress has long had constitutional authority over war-time detention matters, and there are good reasons for Congress to assert its authority in this instance. For over six years, the Administration has stated that one of its highest policy priorities is to close the detention facility at Guantanamo. But for that same period of time, members of the Senate have repeatedly requested a plan that explains how the Administration will handle each of the detainees currently held there. Unfortunately, the Administration has consistently failed to provide that plan.
“Now, as the terrorist threat around the world grows and metastasizes, the Administration continues to demand that the facility be closed, while failing to explain how it will do so. There are serious legal and security challenges inherent in moving this population to other locations – whether inside or outside the United States. Congress is simply asking the executive branch to explain where it will hold those set for trial, how it will continue to detain dangerous terrorists pursuant to the laws of war, and how it will mitigate the risks of moving this population. If the Administration can provide answers to these basic questions to the satisfaction of the American people, then congressional restrictions on the movement of these detainees will be lifted and the plan can be implemented.
“Congress’s need for answers is even more acute after the Administration transferred five senior Taliban detainees, under secret agreement, to Qatar without prior notification to Congress as required by law. The notification standard was enacted into law to allow the President authority to implement his stated policy, but with a good faith understanding that the people’s representatives could weigh in on these important decisions before the transfers happen. The President’s failure to abide by the notification provisions undermined any trust the Congress had in the process. And now, as the Taliban continues to plot attacks against U.S. servicemembers in Afghanistan, the Administration is scurrying to figure out how to keep these five terrorists from the battlefield.
“This is not congressional overreach. It is congressional oversight. The President has decided that the security risks of keeping Guantanamo open outweigh the security and legal risks of closing it. Congress is merely seeking information that will allow the American people and Congress to understand that decision. The American people deserve an explanation for how the President plans to execute one of his most-repeated policy goals.
“The NDAA is far too important to be hold hostage in a budget negotiation. For 53 consecutive years, the Congress has passed an NDAA. With threats to our national security multiplying around the world, this year should be no different.”