H.R. 4909: National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2017

This was a vote to pass H.R. 4909 in the House. The federal budget process occurs in two stages: appropriations and authorizations. This is an authorization bill, which directs how federal funds should or should not be used. (It does not set overall spending limits, however, which are the subject of appropriations bills.) Authorizations are typically made for single fiscal years (October 1 through September 30 of the next year) but are often renewed in subsequent law.

The National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) is an annual federal spending bill that sets funding levels and outlines spending priorities for the military. Defense spending constituted $602 billion or 16 percent of the federal budget last year, and 54 percent of so-called “discretionary spending” over which Congress exercises yearly control. This makes the NDAA one of the most important bills on Congress’s agenda — so vital that despite partisan gridlock, the measure has passed Congress and been signed by the president for 54 consecutive years.

What’s in this year’s measure? And will it pass or break the 54-year streak?

What the bill does

The House bill, H.R. 4909, would set defense funding at $610 billion, up slightly from last year’s amount, while the Senate bill, S. 2943, funds $602 billion.

The bill has, literally, thousands of substantive policy provisions. We've found some of the most salient:

The bill would uphold the 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF) which was passed in the wake of the terrorist attacks, although some critics say that the authorization is outdated and doesn’t take into account newer threats such as the Islamic State. It would also ensure that detainees currently held at the Guantanamo Bay detention center in Cuba, which President Obama has sought to close to transfer the remaining detainees to the U.S., could not in fact be transferred to the mainland, at least not this year.

The provision that had attracted the most attention was one that wouldrequire women to register for the Selective Service, as all male citizens are currently required to do at age 18. Although the House Armed Service Committee had approved the language, which was based on the Draft America’s Daughters Act, the provision was removed in a procedural votebringing the bill to the House floor.

One of the most controversial provisions would remove protections for LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) employees of military contractors, after a President Obama executive order granted such protections last year. A subsequent vote to roll back the provision in the House bill (that is, a vote to restore protections) was so heated that House Democrats started chants of “Shame!” on the floor when the vote on the LGBT worker protections was voted down by one vote, thanks to seven Republicans switching their votes on the House floor.

What supporters say

Supporters say the bill is strong on defense in a dangerous world of terrorist threats, and makes needed changes to everything from equipment to health care.

“This is a reform bill. The NDAA contains the most sweeping reforms of the organization of the Department of Defense in a generation. It modernizes the military health system to provide beneficiaries with higher quality care, better access to care, and a better experience of care,” said Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain (R-AZ). “The NDAA is also an innovation bill. It refocuses Pentagon leadership on preserving America’s military technological advantage and advances reforms to the defense acquisition system to harness American innovation.”

“We need to build a 21st century military capable of confronting the evolving threats we face. However, gaping equipment and funding shortfalls are endangering our troops and making it harder for them to execute their missions,” Speaker of the House Paul Ryan (R-WI1) Paul Ryan said. “The NDAA will help close this readiness gap by modernizing and fully funding our forces.”

What opponents say

House Democrats voted 40–142 against the bill, a strong opposition given the traditionally bipartisan nature of the legislation. Rep. Adam Smith (D-WA9), the top Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee, called the aforementioned LGBT vote “the last straw” in his decision to oppose the bill.

The White House has indicated a financial provision as their main source of opposition.

“The bill would redirect $18 billion of Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) funds,” the slush-fund for Middle East military operations, “toward base budget programs that the Department of Defense (DOD) did not request, cutting off critical funding for wartime operations after April 30, 2017. Not only is this approach dangerous, but it is also wasteful,” the White House said in a statement. “By gambling with warfighting funds, the bill risks the safety of our men and women fighting to keep America safe, undercuts stable planning and efficient use of taxpayer dollars, dispirits troops and their families, baffles our allies, and emboldens our enemies.”

Odds of passage

More than half a century of success in passing the NDAA is no guarantee for this time around. The House passed this year’s NDAA earlier this month 277–147 but that falls short of the 290 votes needed to override a presidential veto. The White House has issued a veto threat for the current iteration being negotiated in Congress, with the primary criticism being the usage of funds marked for war expenses for routine spending instead.

This is no idle threat. Last October, President Obama vetoed the NDAA that originally passed Congress, only the fifth veto of his presidency. Obama’s main issue was an extra $38 billion that Republicans had included as “temporary extra” military spending, which Obama and many Democrats considered an unpaid-for workaround to agreed-upon budget caps. A month later, a revised plan was passed and signed by the president. It featured provisions including an adjustment to the veterans’ retirement plans, preventing a planned round of military base closings, and making the process of adopting military dogs or other animals easier.

The Senate Armed Services Committee passed the current Senate bill 23–3 last week. The full Senate will vote on it soon. The two chambers will then need to strike an agreement to combine their versions.

Congress
114th Congress
Date
May 18, 2016
Chamber
House
Number
#216
Question:
On Passage of the Bill in the House
Result:
Passed

Totals     Republican     Democrat
  Aye 277
 
 
64%
237 40
  No 147
 
 
34%
5 142
Not Voting 9
 
 
2%
3 6
Required: Simple Majority source: house.gov
Seat position based on our ideology score.

Vote Details

Notes: The Speaker’s Vote? “Aye” or “Yea”?
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