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Defense Committees Start Conference on FY20 Authorization Bill

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CAPITOL HILL – With 11 days to go until Fiscal Year 2019 ends, lawmakers from the House and Senate held their first armed services conference committee meeting to iron out differences between each chamber’s version of next year’s National Defense Authorization Act.

When the fiscal year ends, so does funding. To avoid a government shutdown, the House Thursday afternoon passed a continuing resolution, a short-term spending bill called authorizing defense spending to continue in FY 2020 but capped at FY 2019 levels and with limits on starting any new programs. The Senate is expected to consider a continuing resolution next week.

Many lawmakers are loath to resort to passing a continuing resolution to fund the government. In December, several government agencies, including the Department of Homeland Security which oversees the Coast Guard, were shuttered when Congress failed to pass an FY 2019 funding bill or continuing resolution. For 35 days about 41,000 active duty Coast Guard members, 6,000 reservists and 8,500 civilian employees were not paid.

“There are flesh and blood, men and women, serving our country all over the world who are affected by the decisions that we make, as well as adversaries and allies that are watching what we do. So, the consequences are significant,” said Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-Texas), the HASC ranking member of the HASC, during a short media briefing Thursday morning.

Members of the HASC and Senate Armed Services Committee met Thursday at the Dirksen Senate building for a ceremonial passing of the conference committee chairmanship from the SASC to the HASC. Each year, the NDAA conference committee chair alternates between the two chambers.

To avoid putting the Pentagon operations under a continuing resolution, lawmakers have to scramble to push out a compromise NDAA that closes a roughly $17 bill funding separating each chamber’s version of the bill. The House version of the FY 2020 NDAA authorizes $733 billion in defense spending. The Senate based its version on a $750 billion defense authorization.

“The bills are very similar except for where they’re different and that’s what we’re going to get together to talk about,” said Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.), chair of the House Armed Services Committee and this year’s chair of the conference committee.

Smith stressed the need to pass the FY 2020 NDAA without hampering the Pentagon’s work improving the readiness of its force with a short-term continuing resolution.

“It’s crucially important that we pass a defense bill to support our troops and to support the national security of this country,” Smith said.

For much of the week, Secretary of Defense Mark Esper has met with lawmakers from both chambers, imploring them to pass an authorization bill on time, said chief Pentagon spokesman Jonathan Hoffman during a Thursday media briefing at the Pentagon.

“Timely enactment of appropriations allows the department to spend taxpayer dollars in the most deliberate and efficient manner to implement the national defense strategy,” Hoffman said. “An extended continuing resolution would hinder the momentum of the readiness and modernization gains the department has achieved in the last two years.”

Among the significant policy differences contained in both chamber’s NDAAs is whether the Navy should deploy low-yield nuclear weapons on submarines. The House version says no, but the Senate version allows for deploying these weapons on submarines. Diverting military construction funds to help pay for building a wall along the U.S. border with Mexico could also become a sticking point during the NDAA negotiations.

The Pentagon has committed $2.5 billion in contracts to build about 129 miles of wall in Arizona, California and New Mexico, Hoffman said. Some lawmakers favor repaying the Pentagon the money it’s spending on the wall. Most of this funding was initially for other military construction projects.

If the Pentagon has to operate under a temporary spending plan, Hoffman said the department could weather a short-term continuing resolution with minimal disruption to training and equipping the force.

“The hope is if it’s kept within a few weeks to a little bit more than that, it’s something we can work through,” Hoffman said. “But once we start getting into months and quarters, the impact grows exponentially and it becomes more difficult to recover from those impacts.”