The Bridge: Congress Keeps Making Big Defense Decisions Behind Closed Doors

A guest edition by Geoff Wilson

Delivered to our subscribers on Thursdays, the new version of The Bridge is an email exclusive product that wades through the jargon of our government and gets straight to the key insights. Here's a sneak peek to see what The Bridge is all about. Sign up here.

Our government’s approach to tackling national security has gone wayward.

National security accounts for the largest part of the government’s spending — nearly 1 trillion taxpayer dollars. With a budget that big and the safety of our country and troops on the line, you’d think the process behind setting our national security priorities would be cautious, meticulous, and transparent to the taxpayers. But it’s not. In recent years, there’s been serious cause for concern about the government’s approach to this important task. Today, I’m passing the mic to my colleague, defense expert Geoff Wilson, who will explain the mechanics of this broken system and why it should worry us.

In this edition:

  • Defining the NDAA (National Defense Authorization Act)
  • Shady secretiveness and a politicized process
  • When the bill’s this big, the public needs to see the receipts

Guest author: POGO’s Director of the Center for Defense Information Geoff Wilson

Over the past two years, our government has struggled to pass the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), the yearly budgetary bill that sets the Pentagon’s strategy to deal with the threats facing our nation.

The power of this bill is immense. It covers everything from how many fighter jets we buy, to the new types of nuclear weapons we build, to the number of soldiers, sailors, aviators, and Marines who actually make up the military. Simply put, the decisions made every year in the NDAA are expansive, and they govern the largest part of the United States’ yearly discretionary budget.

But the process for setting the Pentagon’s budget and strategy is woefully broken.

First, some context.

Before I dive into exactly how it’s broken, let’s back up a bit.

The Pentagon budget process starts at the beginning of each year when the president, under the guidance of national security officials and Pentagon leaders, proposes a budget to Congress. The House and the Senate then hold separate processes to adjust the president’s proposal by adding amendments that both alter the Pentagon budget and direct the Pentagon to adopt or abandon certain policies.

In both chambers, the process starts in the respective armed services committees, and then the bill comes up for a vote by the full chamber. The House and Senate then come together to reconcile their differences and pass a final bill. (This takes basically the entire year, believe it or not.)

The House of Representatives has continued to hold public debates on the contents of its bill. But the production of the Senate version of the bill in the Senate Armed Services Committee has happened behind closed doors since 2014, with very little public information on why certain decisions were made or even which senators supported individual positions.

Essentially, a small subsection of the Senate makes big national security decisions behind closed doors, without any explanation to the voters who elected them.

But wait, it gets worse.

The Senate’s problems when it comes to the NDAA go way beyond the Senate Armed Services Committee. Typically, the whole Senate votes on amendments to the NDAA. But fueled by an increasing partisan divide, the Senate last year did not let every senator vote on amendments. Instead, Senate leaders met in private with House leaders to hash out a compromise bill, and the final product was rushed through both chambers with no time for debate.

The decisions made behind closed doors by just a handful of people are not small ones. For instance, last year, House and Senate leadership scrapped a provision that would have required women ages 18 to 25 to register for the draft alongside men. That provision had been passed through both the Senate Armed Services Committee and the full House, but it was nixed without explanation.

And it seems like we’re barreling down a similar path this year.

While the House managed to pass its version of the NDAA in July, the Senate failed to pass its version of the bill before adjourning to hit the campaign trail. Instead, the House and Senate Armed Services Committees’ staff will meet informally behind closed doors to produce a final NDAA.

Why does all of this matter?

The United States is spending more money on our defense than at any time since World War II. And over the past two years, Congress has added billions in spending above the president’s proposed budgets.

The public deserves a much bigger window into these decisions, particularly when the Pentagon has such a bad track record at spending its money wisely.

My colleagues here at POGO have detailed the mind-boggling waste at the Pentagon. Spurthi explained the boondoggle that is the F-35 last month, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg. The Pentagon has poured billions into the Littoral Combat Ship only to start retiring them early due to a litany of issues. And the federal government lets defense contractors massively overcharge the military for the spare parts needed to maintain U.S. military equipment.

We’re left wondering whether we’re actually getting stronger defense with all of this extra money.

We need way more transparency and accountability if we’re to have any hope of reining in Pentagon spending. Returning to the normal process of debating the NDAA in public is a great place to start.