Barely one week after a blockbuster Washington Post investigation revealed that the Pentagon had suppressed a report identifying $125 billion in wasteful spending, Congress has passed the new National Defense Authorization Act, directing a fresh $619 billion to the Department of Defense. The bill, which sailed through both Houses of Congress with large, veto-proof majorities after having some controversial elements removed, now heads to President Obama’s desk.
Covering military expenditures through the beginning of the first term of President-elect Donald Trump, the bill looks like a down payment on his promise to increase the size and capabilities of the military. The bill rolls back planned troops reductions, increasing the Army’s end strength by 16,000 troops and the Marine Corps by 3,000. It also provides a 2.1 percent pay raise for members of the armed forces effective January 1.
The bill also bars the Defense Department from closing any military bases, despite the fact that the leadership in the Pentagon has told lawmakers that it has excess capacity.
The $619 billion figure represents a $3.2 billion increase in spending that is not matched by a similar increase in non-defense spending, something that recent budget compromises between President Obama and Republicans in Congress have typically required under the Budget Control Act of 2011. Congress will still be required to pass an appropriations bill detailing the way the Pentagon will be directed to spend much of the money the NDAA allocates.
The total price tag for national defense is only expected to rise in 2017. Lawmakers left funding for some major programs out of the proposal, including multiple upgrades to the Navy’s fleet and the purchase of dozens of the troubled F-35 fighter jet to keep the headline number down. Rep. Mac Thornberry, chair of the House Armed Services Committee, said Thursday that he hopes the Trump administration will request even more defense funding once the new administration takes office.
That request appears to be a foregone conclusion, as Vice President Mike Pence said this week that the Trump administration will submit a request for supplemental defense spending within the first 100 days of taking office.
In what appears to be a nod to the inclinations of the Trump administration, the bill includes a recommendation that the U.S. implement a high-level officer exchange program with the Taiwanese military. It’s a move that China, which views the island nation as a breakaway province, will view as provocative if it is implemented.
However, Trump has already shown a willingness to poke at Beijing, having taken the controversial step of speaking on the phone with Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen after his election. As part of the country’s “One-China” policy, no U.S. president had spoken to the leader of Taiwan since 1979.
The NDAA does make some nods toward cost reductions. It requires the Pentagon to trim the ranks of active duty generals and admirals by 110 and includes a study intended to identify another 10 percent reduction.
The bill also targets Pentagon acquisitions for reform by splitting the duties of the Defense Department’s undersecretary for acquisition, technology and logistics between two posts: the undersecretary for acquisition and sustainment, and the new job of undersecretary for research and engineering.
None of these steps, though, addresses the fact that the Pentagon’s vast bureaucracy has never been successfully audited. Last summer, for example, an examination of the finances of the U.S. Army alone found misstatements and errors than ran into the trillions of dollars. A push by Congress to force the Pentagon into “audit readiness” by the end of fiscal year 2017 is widely regarded as doomed to failure.
The bill was able to pass both Houses of Congress by a wide margin after several controversial measures were removed. Among them were a proposal to allow defense contractors to exercise their “religious freedom” by discriminating against employees on the basis of gender identity or sexual orientation. Another measure would have required women to register for the draft.