Outlook for the NDAA in the 117th Congress

Katina Slavkova | January 10, 2021

The 116th Congress wrapped up its final days in a dramatic fashion by delivering the first and only veto override of the Trump Administration on New Year’s Day. It was probably fitting and not terribly surprising that this strong bipartisan legislative rebuke – executed with barely two days to spare before the start of a new Congress- was in support of the FY21 defense policy bill.

The massive annual National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) has a unique place among the various authorizing legislative efforts on Capitol Hill. Colleen Shogan’s analysis in “Like Clockwork” shows just how rare this authorization effort is, and the regular order that goes into it. Its national security ramifications almost always guarantee an unparalleled congressional unity and popularity. And last year was no exception when both chambers of Congress offered an overwhelming support for the passage of the FY21 NDAA. With its final act of the veto override, the 116th Congress assured that the longevity streak of the defense policy bill has now been extended to 60 consecutive years.

While the newly sworn in 117th Congress will most likely strive to continue the long bipartisan tradition of passing an annual NDAA, there will be enough pitfalls along the way to make the process challenging and the timing of a final vote somewhat unpredictable.

There are a couple of underlying dynamics that may determine the final shape of and the ease with which Congress can deliver an acceptable FY22 defense policy bill for signature by the new Biden Administration.

First, there are the practical logistical delays with the budget submission and the expected significant substantive policy differences from a new president of a different party. Normally, the White House would provide its annual spending plan, including the administration’s detailed defense budget priorities, in early February. However, during a presidential transition year this timeline will understandably be delayed by at least a couple of months.

In addition, this comes on the heels of reports that the defense agency review team of President-elect Biden’s transition has encountered some unexplained delays and resistance in scheduling and receiving national security briefings by the Pentagon.

Further complicating matters might be the highly unusual step of the outgoing Trump administration in planning to release its own FY22 defense budget plan publicly before January 20. If this reporting by Defense One bears out in the next couple of weeks, it’s possible that President Biden’s defense policy team will have to fend off some additional and unanticipated political headwinds in justifying their own defense spending priorities and policy choices.

There are some early indications that, at a minimum, the incoming Biden administration will try to achieve a better balance between defense and nondefense spending as opposed to opting strictly for outright cuts on the defense side. And Biden’s nominee for Deputy Secretary of Defense, Dr. Kathleen Hicks, has already offered a very thoughtful preview of a reimagined defense spending plan that will most likely clash with Republicans’ ideas in Congress as it envisions possible decreases and savings down the road.

This leads directly to the second dynamic that will play out in shepherding a sound defense policy bill, namely the electoral and organizational changes that have transpired in the 117th Congress.

The Politics and People of the 117th

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi can no longer count on a solid Democratic majority in the chamber. The 2020 elections delivered unexpectedly disappointing losses for the Democrats who now have to contend with extremely narrow margins. And the situation on the Senate side is just as precarious. Even with the narrow Democratic wins in the two Georgia runoff elections the Senate will still be very closely divided. At a minimum, this would suggest that progressive members’ wishes for significant cuts in defense spending may no longer be realistic. Under those circumstances, the most likely scenario for defense in FY22 is to preserve the status quo with the possibility of negligible trims around the edges.

Furthermore, House Republicans are now firmly looking towards the midterm elections in 2022 by hoping to capture the majority. After the party’s better than expected performance in 2020, and given long-term historical patterns of the president’s party losing seats in midterm elections,  they feel optimistic about their chances in taking back the House. This will inform their stance on shaping the annual defense policy bill. They can put moderate Democrats on notice by daring them to vote for lower defense toplines and other unpopular policy proposals. Ultimately this dynamic might moderate the shape and size of a final NDAA and also give slightly outsize influence to more hawkish voices in Congress.

And finally, the House Armed Services Committee (HASC), which is one of the two congressional committees charged with authorizing funding for the military and approving the annual NDAA, is due for a significant membership shakeup in the new Congress. Many of its rank-and-file members from the 116th have either retired or lost reelections. But the most consequential change may be the new successor to the top Republican slot on the panel.

Rep. Mike Rogers of Alabama was selected in early December to replace retiring Rep. Mac Thornberry as the new ranking minority member on HASC. Rep. Rogers has a long service on HASC and is deeply familiar with the defense portfolio but he is also viewed as staunchly conservative. His defense policy views and style might clash more visibly with the Democratic chairman, Rep. Adam Smith. As a result, this new leadership dynamic at the top can usher in a more contentious and uncertain process in crafting the FY22 NDAA.

Ultimately though, considering its successful track record, defense policy might turn out to be again the rare bright spot and bipartisan win in a deeply polarized Washington.


Katina Slavkova is a Fellow and Director of the Certificate Program at the Government Affairs Institute


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