Pentagon & Congress

Defense bill's lesser provisions may have big impact

One lawmaker wants safer cockpit door locks for the civilian planes that transport troops.

Another wants to let service members carry private weapons on base.

Several others want easier regulations on small-business owners bidding on defense contracts.

And they all want their proposals included in the upcoming 2016 National Defense Authorization Act, the massive annual budget legislation that is just starting to come into focus.

Each year, the bill sets spending guidelines for thousands of critical Pentagon priorities, but also includes a host of smaller, sometimes controversial policy changes.

The House Armed Services Committee will unveil its first drafts of the expected $600 billion-plus measure next week, outlining goals for annual endeavors such as setting the military basic pay raise, retiring and preserving various aircraft, and reforming the defense acquisition process.

But each year, the legislation also contains hundreds of provisions on lower-profile issues such as transferring unused base land to local communities, awarding overdue medals to battlefield heroes and protecting pet projects at hometown bases.

For some lawmakers and lobbyists, those lesser-heralded provisions can be more influential politically than helping pass a plan to adequately fund the military.

This year, among the provisions under consideration is a request from Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, to include language supporting Air Force proposals to station F-35 Joint Strike Fighters at bases in his state. Rep. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., pushed for millions more for Army flight training, highlighting its potential impact on Fort Campbell, which sits in her district.

Several lawmakers petitioned the committee Tuesday to include the small-business reforms, noting the impact that freeing up billions in potential contracts could have on the national economy (not to mention their own districts).

Other requests were less parochial but still potentially influential.

Rep. Earl Blumenauer, D-Ore., argued for more emergency visas for foreign nationals who worked with U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. Rep. Mike Fitzpatrick, R-Pa., wants second barrier doors on civil air reserve fleet planes, to prevent possible in-flight attacks.

The 2015 National Defense Authorization Act approved last year included language awarding Purple Hearts to victims of the 2009 shooting at Fort Hood in Texas, a controversial step that took five years to shepherd through Congress.

This year's bill likely will include similarly problematic and previously unsuccessful provisions, including two championed by Rep. Louie Gohmert, R-Texas, on Tuesday.

The first would allow military chaplains to "pray in Jesus' name," a provision that has rankled Pentagon officials who have pushed for nondenominational, inclusive prayers in some public, nonreligious settings. The other would allow troops to carry privately-owned firearms on base, in light of incidents like the 2014 shootings at Fort Hood, Texas.

Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, chairman of the armed services committee, said he expects plenty of sparring over those and other heated measures in the days to come, but added: "We'll work through it."

The committee is expected to finalize its work by the end of the month, and the full House is scheduled to debate the measure in mid-May. Those moves will set the stage for negotiations with the Senate, which is expected to submit its own draft — complete with even more undercard policy changes — early this summer.

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