Autumn is my favorite season of the year. It’s a time for picking apples, raking leaves, and flavoring everything with pumpkin. But in Washington, it’s also the season for panicking over whether Congress will pass a defense authorization bill and, to compound the worry, whether the Defense Department will end up being funded through a full-year continuing resolution. The actual historical record shows that lawmakers have passed an authorization bill for 58 years running, and that they have never resorted to a full-year CR for defense. But that doesn’t stop the annual worry that this will be the year the streak ends.
The government is already on a continuing resolution that lasts through November 21, so the usual catastrophizing about a full-year CR is on hold for a few more weeks. The current worry that has people in a frenzy is the “skinny NDAA” — in layman’s terms, a stripped-down version of the National Defense Authorization Act, or NDAA, that Senator Inhofe, R-Okla., proposed this week. This slim version of the NDAA would only include the non-controversial “essentials” needed to keep the Defense Department functioning for the time being. The theory is that Congress would follow up with a full authorization bill once the major issues in contention (the border wall, nuclear modernization, etc.) have been worked out. But there are three key factors Congress should consider before going down this path.
First, a skinny NDAA isn’t necessary. Going without an authorization bill doesn’t have the same immediate and drastic consequences as going without an appropriations bill. A lapse in appropriations triggers a government shutdown, which is incredibly disruptive to everything the Defense Department does. But a lapse in authorizations, while not ideal, doesn’t have the same widespread effects. In fact, other government departments and agencies routinely go for years at a time without authorization bills. NASA, for example, has only had two authorization bills in the past decade. And while it is true (and laudable) that defense has gotten an authorization bill each year since 1962, it is also worth remembering that the NDAA has been signed into law after the start of the calendar year at least four times in recent memory (2006, 2008, 2011, and 2013). In other words, there’s no need to rush.
A second factor to consider is that passing a stripped-down bill that includes the most essential provisions may reduce the incentive to pass a full authorization bill later. Each year there are inevitably some provisions in law that are expiring and need to be reauthorized. These measures provide a good motivation for Congress to act in a timely manner, and it’s one of the reasons the NDAA is considered a must-pass piece of legislation. If these essential provisions are taken out of the main bill and passed separately, there is less incentive for Congress to come back and pass the full NDAA later in the year.
A third factor to consider is that if Congress takes the skinny-NDAA approach, it should beef it up to include the major provisions it has already negotiated in conference committee that were also included in both the House and Senate versions of the bill. This would effectively be an insurance policy to make sure these important yet less controversial issues make it into law in case the primary sticking points never get settled. For example, both the House and Senate versions of the NDAA included language to create a new military service for space. While they differed in some of the details, such as whether to call it a Space Force or Space Corps, this idea has enjoyed bipartisan support in both chambers.
The bottom line is a skinny NDAA isn’t necessary and may be counterproductive. Congress should instead focus its energy on finishing the full authorization bill in a timely manner. If Congress decides to pass a skinny NDAA, then it should include all the items that have already been successfully negotiated in conference committee and punt the remaining issues to the appropriations bill. Otherwise, it may not get another chance to address these important issues this year.