The NDAA: America’s Misunderstood 1%
On Tuesday November 10th, the U.S. Senate joined the House and passed a revised version of the National Defense Authorization Act, which permits the Department of Defense to appropriate a total budget of $607 billion for the upcoming fiscal year. The original version, which passed with considerable bipartisan support, contained an extra $5 billion in funding. Some cuts to the new version included $250 million to Obama’s Counterterrorism Partnerships Fund, $250 million to Army readiness, and a little more than $1 billion in fuel savings.
Like many previous versions of the NDAA, this year's bill increases funding in the Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO), an emergency account originally designed to fund the costs of Iraq and Afghanistan. While the Pentagon spending caps legislated under the Budget Control Act of 2011 were imposed to reduce the funding of discretionary programs ($1 trillion between the years 2012 and 2021), the OCO’s status as a nondiscretionary defense fund allows it to increase the overall defense budget without violating across-the-board budget restrictions. As a result, the White House has heavily criticized the “slush fund” as a gimmick to flout budget caps.
Even while other areas of the budget remain hotly debated, the NDAA has historically enjoyed strong bipartisan support and has been passed for 53 consecutive years. Therefore, Obama’s unprecedented veto of the bill (as well as publicly signing the veto statement before a pool of White House press), suggests that the threat of sequestration imposed by the Budget Control Act, was not the main impetus for his veto.
Instead, a provision in the original 2016 NDAA that would further the ban on transferring any Guantanamo detainees into the United States seems to be the White House’s primary interest. In the past, President Obama has threatened to veto each of the previous six annual authorization bills of his presidency in response to Guantanamo transfer restrictions, but this is the first time he has followed through. In his veto remarks released by the Office of the Press Secretary, Obama criticizes the bill’s “failure to remove unwarranted restrictions on the transfer of detainees”. While the revised bill still contains these restrictions, and the White House’s lack of response indicates that a second veto is unlikely, this brief quarrel reflects Washington’s larger tendency to play the supposed “military card” – a self-bolstering attempt by a party to antagonize the opposition as “anti-military” and thereby appear more understanding in comparison.
The White House and Congress often claim that they have the best interests of American troops in mind. For instance, in response to the President’s decision to veto the original 2016 NDAA, then-House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) equated Obama’s prioritization of “domestic agenda” with the refusal “to put our troops first”. Despite the bill’s inevitable passage, the White House’s last ditch effort to avoid defaulting on its promise to close Guantanamo Bay Naval Base unnecessarily compromises the legislative process, and unfairly ties the military’s readiness with the administration’s broader foreign policy objectives. Congress’ insistence on increasing OCO funding – money that only escalates the strain of sequestration on the discretionary defense budget – is barely an improvement. This “putting the troops first” justification of political agendas illustrates the true disconnect between the people who fight America’s wars, the political class that dictates U.S. foreign policy, and the greater civilian public.
For instance, Americans who support increased domestic initiatives (i.e. education, infrastructure, and the economy) over military spending, often cite that the U.S. already has a defense budget larger than that of the next seven militarized countries combined. This sentiment is clearly reflected in the Budget Control Act; half of the cuts mandated by sequestration fall on the military’s one-fifth share of the federal budget, while entitlements and other mandatory programs remain almost untouched. At a recent hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Senator Angus King (I-ME) observed: “The growth in the budget right now is in mandatory programs, and particularly in health care costs: Medicare, Medicaid, Children's Health Program. That's what's driving the federal deficit. It's not defense.” Yet, the public dissatisfaction from the U.S.’s inefficiency abroad has resulted in the false vilification of defense spending.
Therefore, the result of this politicized argument over emergency war funds and national security measures is a failure to acknowledge those who are most immediately impacted by this incessant budget debate: American military members and families. While Washington plays its game of budget balancing, the military families are receiving pay raises below the Employment Cost index, are receiving reductions in Basic Allowance for Housing (BAH) and are experiencing TRICARE pharmacy co-pay increases. Sequestration forces the Department of Defense Education Activity (DoDEA) to dismantle the fine art programs of children in military households, and the Defense Commissary Agency (DeCA) to raise basic groceries prices. These demands for realistic wages, affordable healthcare, and greater educational opportunities are no different from the demands of the American public. Yet, since all of these expenditures fall under the broad nomenclature of “defense spending,” financially supporting the troops is confused with financially supporting the proliferation of the U.S.’s military complex or its actions abroad using U.S. tax dollars.
Considering that less than 1 percent of the American population has been on active military duty, compared with 9 percent of Americans who were in uniform in World War II, the gap in mutual understanding between civilians and military has increased. In light of Veterans Day and Military Family Appreciation Month, the greatest way to thank someone for their service is to obtain a better understanding of the U.S. military and those who serve in it. Supporting the troops does not require support of the establishment in which they belong, the foreign policy of their Commander-in-Chief, or the conflicts in which they fight. While the way the U.S. conducts and finances war will always be heavily debated, we must never let that debate overshadow the one percent of Americans that are immediately impacted. After all, although U.S. foreign policy decisions and domestic legislation have higher influence, American military members are people who are more than deserving of our understanding.
- Sam Kim