President Donald Trump’s proposal to build a bigger U.S. military was just the starting point for the U.S. House, which voted to authorize more ships, planes and personnel than he requested.
“There is no substitute for military power,” Armed Services Committee Chairman Mac Thornberry said as the House debated the $696 billion defense policy bill for the fiscal year that begins Oct. 1. “If we don’t fund these things now they won’t be there when we need them.”
The House passed the bill Friday on a vote of 344-81. The Senate hasn’t yet taken up the comparable bill crafted by its Armed Services Committee. Republican leaders in the Senate have said the bill is a priority for coming weeks, after the conflict over health insurance legislation is resolved.
The defense legislation would determine what weaponry the Pentagon is allowed to procure and set military policy. Actual spending levels are set in a separate appropriations bill.
Providing all of the money authorized under the House-passed bill (H.R. 2810) would mean busting spending limits by more than $70 billion. Congress hasn’t yet figured out what to do about those caps for the coming fiscal year, and the Pentagon policy bill written in the Senate (S. 1519) would let slightly more be spent. So the debate is shaping up to be more about how high to go rather than whether to spend more on the military.
The bill’s topline of $695.9 billion for national security programs includes $592.8 billion for regular Defense Department programs, more than $70 billion above the maximum set in law; $75 billion in Overseas Contingency Operations funds, which aren’t subject to budget caps, with $10 billion of that dedicated to the regular Pentagon budget; $20.8 billion for nuclear security programs at the Department of Energy; and $7.5 billion in mandatory spending.
The House-passed legislation would provide a 2.4 percent military pay raise and boost weapons systems such as Lockheed Martin Corp.’s F-35 Joint Strike Fighters and Boeing Co. F/A-18 Super Hornet aircraft and Chinook and Apache helicopters. It would also expand the Army by 17,000 soldiers and would prod Pentagon purchasers to go online to buy goods from commercial business sites.
AIRCRAFT: The measure would allow for the purchase of 87 F-35 aircraft — 17 more than the Pentagon requested, and 22 F/A-18 Super Hornets, eight more than the administration sought.
The bill backs buying 69 of Boeing’s Apache attack helicopters, while the Pentagon asked for 61. Sikorsky, a unit of Lockheed, would stand to gain under a recommendation for 53 UH-60M Black Hawk helicopters, five more than in the budget request. The House panel also wants the Pentagon to buy 17 of Lockheed’s MC-130J Air Force Special Operations aircraft, more than triple the five that were requested.
BIGGER FLEET: The Pentagon initially asked for eight ships, and the House bill would authorize 13, including three Littoral Combat Ships. The Pentagon backs buying two of the
ships intended for shallow coastal waters. The LCS is built in two versions by a Lockheed Martin-led team and Austal Ltd. While the ship has been criticized as vulnerable to attack, including by two defense secretaries under President Barack Obama, it has strong support among the congressional delegations from Wisconsin and Alabama, where the shipbuilding program provides jobs.
The bill would authorize one additional DDG-51 destroyer, for a total of three. The destroyers are made by General Dynamics Corp. and Huntington Ingalls Industries Inc. It also proposes an additional LPD-17 amphibious transport ship made by Huntington Ingalls.
The Navy would be given multiyear contract authority for 15 destroyers and 13 Virginia-class submarines. The Navy requested multiyear contract authority for 10 destroyers and multi-year authority for 10 Virginia-class attack submarines made by General Dynamics and Huntington Ingalls. The authorization bill also would require the Navy to get ready to sustain a 12 aircraft-carrier fleet by 2023.
FOREIGN WARS: The measure would direct the defense secretary to provide an Afghanistan strategy looking beyond the next five years and to assess the trajectory and cost of U.S. efforts there. It would request no later than Feb. 1 a regional strategy explaining long-term U.S. objectives in Syria.
The House also adopted by voice vote an amendment by Oklahoma Republican Tom Cole that may inch Congress toward a revived debate over an authorization for the use of military force (AUMF) to cover the operations against Islamic State in Syria and Iraq instead of relying on authorizations more than a decade old.
The provision would direct the president to provide to Congress a strategy and a budgetary analysis needed to defeat al-Qaeda, the Taliban and Islamic State no later than 30 days after the measure becomes law. The report also would include an analysis of an AUMF and the legal framework to accomplish the strategy.
SPACE CORPS: The measure would require the Pentagon to create a Space Corps — a dedicated part of the Defense Department responsible for national security space programs. Under the measure, the head of Space Corps would report to the Air Force secretary.
The Pentagon’s leaders and the White House oppose the provision, which will become fodder for negotiations between the House and the Senate over the final defense authorization measure. Republicans avoided an intra-party clash among veteran members of the Armed Services panel when they didn’t allow an amendment to come to the floor that would have scrapped the creation of Space Corps. It pitted Representative Mike Turner, an Ohio Republican, against Representative Mike Rogers, an Alabama Republican, who champions the new Space Corps.
NO BASE CLOSINGS: The sprawling defense measure doesn’t authorize another round of base closings. An effort by California Republican Tom McClintock to permit closing facilities was defeated on the House floor. The Pentagon had proposed starting a round in fiscal 2021. As in previous years, the bill would prohibit closing the military detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and the transfer of detainees into the U.S.
WEB ORDERS: The measure would prod Pentagon officials to go online to buy goods
from sites that cater specifically to commercial businesses. The Defense Department could turn to business-to-business portals such as WW Grainger Inc., which distributes maintenance and repair supplies, or Office Depot Inc. for office supplies. While Amazon.com wouldn’t be eligible to be a military vendor because it’s set up for private consumers, the company’s business-to-business portal could be considered under the proposal.
What’s Not There
Republican leaders managed to steer away from some thorny issues that the rank and file in both parties wanted to address in the bill.
To the Democrats’ chagrin, they used a procedural maneuver to strip a provision that would have banned the use of Pentagon money to build a wall along the U.S-Mexico border.
On a party-line vote of 179-245, the House rejected a Democratic amendment seeking parity between defense increases and domestic spending also failed.
Heeding the recommendation of Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, the House rejected a provision that sought to ban the Defense Department from paying gender-transition medical bills. The vote was 209-214.
A 2016 Rand Corp. study estimated the number of transgender individuals currently serving in the active component of the U.S. military at 1,320 and 6,630 out of a total of about 1.3 million service members.
Mattis has deferred any transgender recruiting until January after military service chiefs raised concerns. The Obama administration had set the deadline to start recruiting to July 1.