WASHINGTON ― House lawmakers on Thursday approved plans for a $740 billion defense authorization bill that provides billions more in equipment purchases than the White House requested and all but assures steady growth in military spending next year.
The budget policy measure, which passed by a bipartisan 316 to 113 vote, includes a 2.7 percent pay raise for troops starting in January, sweeping changes to military sexual assault prosecutions, and language requiring women to register for the first time for a potential military draft.
It also contains several provisions related to Afghanistan, as lawmakers continue to attempt to address the messy military exit from that country.
But the most significant detail of the measure may be the inclusion of about $24 billion in funding above what the White House requested.
That mirrors plans approved by the Senate Armed Services Committee earlier this summer, and marks a victory for Republican lawmakers who have said President Joe Biden’s proposed military budget was insufficient to counter threats like a growing Chinese military and worldwide terrorism.
House progressives and House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam Smith, D-Wash., had argued for lower spending levels after years of big defense plus-ups under former President Donald Trump.
“What we have seen in our last two decades of war is exemplary of the type of waste that goes on,” said Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y. “Not only are these tremendous costs, but also this explosion in [defense] spending leaves our public health priorities underfunded and militarizes every problem in our society.”
But ultimately, opposition from moderate Democrats and conservatives overcame those objections. The House voted along bipartisan lines to reject amendments from progressive Democrats to undo the $24 billion boost (142-268) and to levy a broad 10 percent cut (86-332).
“Threats from near-peer rivals like China and Russia are not the only ones we face; Terrorists continue their plots to destroy our way of life,” said Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Ala., ranking member on the House Armed Services Committee. “We must continue to take the fight to them anywhere and any time they threaten us. With strong investments in new capabilities and readiness, this bill enables our warfighters to do just that.”
In a statement earlier this week, White House officials offered support for the authorization bill, but vowed to continue “to work with Congress to set an appropriate and responsible level of defense spending to support the security of the nation.”
Officially, the level of defense spending won’t be set by Congress until appropriations measures are finalized later this year. But with Thursday’s House vote and key senators already backing the $740 billion spending level, support for that as the military top line appears certain.
Now lawmakers will wait for the Senate to advance its draft of the authorization bill (expected to happen next month) and try to finish negotiations on an inter-chamber compromise measure before the end of the year.
The defense policy bill is one of the most significant pieces of legislation passed by Congress annually, setting spending priorities and defense policies for the coming fiscal year. It has passed into law for 60 consecutive years, making it the rare legislation that’s both reliable and bipartisan amid other Capitol Hill fights.
Unlike the Senate draft of the authorization bill — approved by committee weeks before the fall of the democratic Afghan government — the House bill includes several oversight provisions related to the aftermath of the U.S. military withdrawal from Afghanistan.
It establishes a 12-member bipartisan commission to look into intelligence and operational missteps and requires that the Pentagon provide a public assessment on military operations and civilian casualties in the country.
It would require the administration to report to Congress on the threat posed by al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, what American weapons have fallen into the Taliban’s hands and why the U.S. military left Bagram Air Base.
And it requires the administration to create a counterterrorism plan for Afghanistan and give Congress annual reports and regular briefings on the military’s “over the horizon” counterterrorism operations.
Administration officials had asked for about $3 billion in support funds for Afghan security forces earlier this summer, but the House measure reassigns all but a small portion of that to other priorities. The remaining money will go to finish up incomplete contract agreements.
Lawmakers could add additional Afghanistan provisions during negotiations with the Senate. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Mark Milley are scheduled to testify before both the House and Senate Armed Services Committees next week on the issue.
Beyond Afghanistan, the House took up multiple amendments aimed at asserting Congress’s war powers under the U.S. Constitution.
Months after the Biden administration suspended deliveries of certain weapons systems to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates in response to their bombing campaigns in Yemen, the House approved two measures meant to curb other U.S. military support to its two Gulf allies.
An amendment from Rep. Ro Khanna, D-Calif., to bar U.S. logistical, maintenance and intelligence support for Saudi Arabian forces in Yemen’s civil war was adopted 219-207. A like-minded, but less constraining amendment from House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Gregory Meeks, D-N.Y., was approved, 223-204.
Despite pressure from the Biden administration, the Saudi air force has continued to kill Yemeni civilians in air strikes, “using U.S. support,” Meeks said. The support has to end to ensure the U.S. “is not complicit in or supportive of this destructive, tragic war.”
The House rejected a measure to end the U.S. military presence in Syria after one year, from Rep. Jamaal Bowman, D-N.Y. About 900 U.S. troops are reportedly still in Syria, where they are supporting and advising the Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces.
Bowman had argued the measure would show troops, “the minimum respect” of either authorizing a clear mission or bringing them home. Rep. Joe Wilson, R-S.C., countered that such a move would abandon America’s Kurdish allies and deny the president flexibility against the Islamic State, a fluid cross-border terror threat.
The 2.7 percent pay raise included in the authorization bill matches the expected pay boost under federal economic estimates for private-sector wage growth.
For junior enlisted troops, it would amount to roughly $790 more a year in pay over 2021 levels. For senior enlisted and junior officers, that hike equals about $1,400 more. An O-4 with 12 years service would see more than $2,600 extra next year.
The raise and renewal of dozens of specialty pays and bonuses were largely uncontroversial this year. Other provisions, such as the requirement that women register with the Selective Service for potential conscription, were more contentious.
Though the idea received bipartisan support in the House Armed Services Committee, several conservatives unsuccessfully tried to strip the proposal from the legislation this week. Some version of the new requirement is likely to end up in the final compromise bill, since the Senate has included similar language in their draft.
The fate of new sexual assault prosecution provisions is less clear.
In keeping with Pentagon plans, the House bill includes language mandating that sexual assault and harassment crimes be taken out of the normal military chain of command, to ensure they are handled by properly trained legal experts.
But senators approved even more sweeping reforms to the military justice system, including removing all serious crimes from the traditional chain of command. Those differences may be a friction point in upcoming negotiations.
Joe Gould was the senior Pentagon reporter for Defense News, covering the intersection of national security policy, politics and the defense industry. He had previously served as Congress reporter.
Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.