Levin Is Leaving Congress Disappointed the NDAA Doesn’t Do More
The longtime Senate Armed Services Committee chairman wanted to pass military compensation reform and move toward closing Guantanamo before he retires this year. By Molly O’Toole
The National Defense Authorization Act was supposed to be Sen. Carl Levin’s swan song.
Instead, on two of his priorities -- closing Guantanamo and reforming military benefits -- it kicks the can down the road again. Levin, the longtime Senate Armed Services Committee chairman, is leaving Congress after 36 years disappointed that the bill bearing his name does not do more.
The NDAA, which sets policy for the U.S. military, boasts a rare record in the do-nothing era of Congress: it has passed for more than 50 consecutive years. Last Thursday, the House passed the “Carl Levin and Howard P. ‘Buck’ McKeon National Defense Authorization Act” for fiscal year 2015 by a sizeable margin of 300-119 votes. McKeon, the California Republican who chairs the House Armed Services Committee, is also retiring after 21 years in Congress.
The Senate is expected to vote on the measure on Thursday, the expiration date for the authorization of the Obama administration’s train-and-equip program for moderate rebels to fight the Islamic State in Syria. The bill includes a 2-year extension of the program.
For months, Levin, a Michigan Democrat, and Sen. Jim Inhofe, an Oklahoma Republican, have been cajoling members to get amendments in early and pleading with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., to give the bill floor time. They vowed the FY2015 NDAA would not repeat last year’s midnight-hour, conferenced bill, passed amid protest over amendments. But with no time scheduled, the “big four” in the Senate and House Armed Services Committees started hammering out the differences between their versions.
In September, lawmakers tacitly agreed to put off key questions on national security until after Election Day – but they set themselves up for a lame duck session without sufficient time to address all of the leftover legislation.
A total of 269 amendments were filed to the Senate version of the NDAA. Levin said Wednesday they were able to clear and ultimately include 44, from both parties. He recently sought -- and failed -- to get unanimous consent in order to hold debate on the NDAA that was limited to relevant amendments.
Cue a defense authorization bill that falls short of Levin’s ambitions to make substantial changes to indefinite detention at Guantanamo and military compensation.
“We are disappointed, however, that we were not able to do more,” Levin and Inhofe, ranking member of the Armed Services committee, said in a joint statement accompanying the bill. They were referring to cost-savings requested by the Pentagon that didn’t survive the NDAA negotiations, but the sentiment also reflects their broader feelings on the bill.
“We continue to believe that defense bills should be taken up by the Senate in the regular order,” they said. “At this point, there is no way that we can resolve disputes about which amendments should be debated, debate them, overcome potential filibusters, and still get the job done … We ask our colleagues to support us in bringing up and passing this bill without amendment as the best of a bad set of options.”
For the fiscal year 2015 NDAA, perhaps Levin didn’t expect a miracle, but he did expect results.
“Look at it though,” Levin told Defense One last week as the compromise NDAA was introduced in the House, “My god -- if the [Joint Chiefs of Staff] come in front of us -- every one of them, and say, ‘You got to make these changes’ -- It’s the chiefs! It’s on their people that they’re leading, and if they’re going to stand up or sit down in front of us and say that, you mean we can’t do this?”
Still, this year’s NDAA is no small feat of legislating. The massive bill authorizes $577.1 billion in fiscal year 2015, including $495.9 billion for the Defense Department’s base budget and $63.7 for Overseas Contingency Operations war funds -- almost exactly what the administration requested.
It establishes a counterterrorism partnership fund and sets $1 billion for a European reassurance initiative. It grants $4.1 billion for the Afghanistan Security Forces Fund. For the operation against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, it includes $1.6 billion the Pentagon has said it needs quickly to train and equip security forces in Iraq. And it approves the authorization to train and equip vetted members of the Syrian opposition, for two years.
“I think it’s a very strong compromise, we did the very, very best we can to make sure that our troops get the support they deserve and their family as well. It’s a good bipartisan, bicameral bill that we think is a very fair approach to considering the issues which are involved in an 800-page bill,” Levin told Defense One on Tuesday.
Last week, Levin urged senators to review the bill and give it broad support, but he also noted he’d have a lot more to say on “some of the more difficult issues” when the bill came to the floor, citing military compensation reforms and closing Guantanamo.
The White House and Pentagon are seeking entitlement reforms in order to slow ballooning personnel costs and relieve the squeeze from sequestration caps on spending, which officials say are beginning to impact military readiness. The Defense Department requested pay raises below the rate of inflation for five years; a slow in the growth of the Basic Allowance for Housing, BAH, for three years; and a gradual increase over 10 years in copays for pharmaceuticals under TRICARE.
In the end, the NDAA provides a 1 percent pay raise below the rate of inflation; a slowed growth in the BAH; and a $3 increase in co-pays for most prescriptions -- but all only for FY2015. Levin and Inhofe’s statement repeats the NDAA is “deferring decisions.” Lawmakers such as McKeon argued those decisions should wait until after the Military Retirement and Compensation Modernization Commission releases its review in February.
“These are not steps that any one of us want to take,” Levin said on the floor Wednesday. “Sequestration is damaging enough to our military, but the damage will be far worse if we insist that the department conduct business as usual without regard to the changed budget circumstances.
“Delaying these things will only make the pain worse later on while damaging the readiness of troops to carry out their missions when we call upon them.”
In the negotiations over the compromise bill, Levin and McKeon also got into a standoff on Guantanamo. “The House basically said there won’t be a bill,” Levin said. “So it’s status quo.”
The bill preserves language from the prior NDAA that says Guantanamo detainees cannot be transferred to the U.S. under any circumstance and funds cannot be used for any detention facility on U.S. soil. Levin wanted to include language allowing Guantanamo detainees to be tried and held in the U.S.
“I am disappointed that we were unable to make further progress in this bill toward the objective of closing the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba,” Levin said Wednesday. “I continue to believe that the Gitmo facility undermines our interests around the world and has made it more difficult to try and convict the terrorists who are detained there, and I’m disappointed that the House leadership refused to consider this provision.”
On the Senate floor Monday, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid described Levin as a “level-headed meditator,” noting that he has cast more than 12,000 votes in the Senate since he first arrived in 1978.
“Some of those votes were hard and not always popular, but they were Carl Levin votes,” Reid said. “Put him on an issue, and he will come back with the prey … He has spent his entire career promoting defense policy that protects America’s interest home and abroad while safeguarding the men and women who serve.”
Leaders in both parties are urging a speedy yes vote on the NDAA, meaning these crucial questions on defense policy will get put off again until the next Congress. On Wednesday, Inhofe took to the floor to urge passage and give a farewell tribute to Levin, noting that he has seen 16 NDAA’s through Congress: “I’m sure that’s some kind of a record.” He again pledged that the “flawed” process behind this year’s NDAA wouldn’t be repeated when the next bill begins to be considered in February. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., will preside, as the expected heir to the Armed Services Committee gavel.
“He’s a very tough act to follow,” McCain said.