White House Objects to Parts of Defense Bill that Curb President’s Power
The multi-layered $700 billion fiscal 2018 National Defense Authorization bill now on the Senate floor has drawn a series of objections from the Trump administration, ranging from its initial rejection of a new round of base closures to a narrowing of presidential authority to set alternative pay rates for warfighters.
The current bipartisan bill (S. 1519) that unanimously cleared the Armed Services Committee in July (the House passed its version the same month) is loaded with detailed weapons and management policy changes. After 277 committee amendments, it includes “important efforts to reorganize the Department of Defense, spur innovation in defense technology, and improve defense acquisition and business operations,” said Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain, R-Ariz., as he launched debate. “The NDAA seeks to strengthen accountability and streamline the process of getting our warfighters what they need to succeed. At the same time, it prioritizes accountability from the department and demands the best use of every taxpayer dollar.”
Also included is a 2.1 percent pay raise for troops. But in a Sept. 8 statement of administration policy, the White House laid out 35 objections to a bill that the Trump team backs overall because it funds overseas operations against ISIS, would raise defense spending and “includes substantial reforms to Department of Defense management and business practices,” including calling for more progress toward auditable finances.
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The administration also praised the bill’s provisions to reform the Tricare pharmaceutical benefits by controlling co-pays and streamlining the administrative process to curb confusion.
But the White House expressed disappointment in the bill’s authorization of only one rather than two Navy Littoral Combat Ships. And officials said the administration “strongly objects” that the current bill echoes the House version and prohibits a Pentagon proposal to seek savings via a new blue-ribbon commission to identify obsolete military bases that Congress has trouble closing. “The department estimates that a new BRAC round in 2021 would save an additional $2 billion or more annually, resources which could be devoted to higher priorities such as readiness and modernization,” the statement said.
In late summer, McCain and Armed Services Ranking Member Jack Reed, D-R.I., introduced a now-pending amendment to require the Pentagon to assemble a list of bases that could be shuttered, if Congress approved. (The Pentagon backed it.)
That brought objections from the American Federation of Government Employees. “In this age of military uncertainty, it is not the time to authorize a new BRAC round,” AFGE Legislative Affairs Director Thomas Kahn said in a Monday letter to senators arguing the past BRACs have not produced the promised savings. “A precipitous BRAC action at this time would have serious consequences and the toll on military readiness is not worth the risk.”
Other White House objections focused on a provision restricting the chief executive’s authority to set an alternative pay adjustment for members of the uniformed services. “Being able to adjust military compensation nimbly in response to serious economic conditions affecting the general welfare is not only essential to the administration’s responsibility to recruit and retain a ready and capable uniformed services, but it is also required to balance military compensation costs against other investments critical to readiness, equipment and modernization,” the policy statement said.
On the civilian side, the administration “is disappointed” that the committee omitted its proposals to provide for key workforce flexibilities to improve, expand and harmonize the government’s efforts to restructure and reshape the federal workforce. “The proposals aim to improve the speed and precision with which the government can hire temporary, term, and student employees; expand access to qualified talent; improve the attractiveness and utility of buyouts as a workforce reshaping tool; and allow for a broader exchange of ideas and talent between the government and the private sector,” the statement read.
Addressing the fighting in Iraq and Syria, the administration objected to a requirement that the Defense secretary provide a 30-day notice to Congress on new battlefield initiatives. Similarly, the bill’s provisions to implement a recently enacted plan to restructure the Office of the Defense Secretary “seem to hinder DoD’s ability to stabilize its senior leadership team and manage the functions and capabilities needed to plan, execute and oversee national security policies, capability development and operations.”
In contracting, the administration objected to a proposed change in the definition of personnel that would count contractors against the previously required caps on Pentagon headquarters personnel, both military and civilian. This would mean cutting more senior executives. “Requiring the department to arbitrarily cut additional SES positions across-the -board would have long-term negative effects or likely effects for various DoD services and organizations,” the White House said in calling for more deliberation.
Trump’s team urged the Senate to add proposals to standardize the civilian workforce’s basic acquisition procedures and allow flexibilities in areas such as task order protests and use of purchase cards. And it objected to the bill’s plan to sunset procurement requirements for sourcing supplies solely from the national technology and industrial base.
The White House also protested the breadth of the bill’s proposed waiver authority to the Defense secretary on sole-source contracting, which would allow him to override Buy American laws.
Trump’s staff also said it sees a threat to presidential prerogative in the bill’s provisions giving Congress authority on deterring and responding to cyber attacks. And the policy statement objected to language giving the Defense Department authority in cyber issues that the administration says belongs with Homeland Security.
This week’s debate on the bill is likely to include dozens of amendments. A round-up by Federal News Radio focused on proposals such as that offered by Sen. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., to codify the Obama administration’s expansion of service members’ maternity and paternity leave from 10-14 days to weeks; an amendment by Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., to set up early-age cybersecurity training program for Army ROTC members; and two amendments on contracting by Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash. One would penalize companies that discriminate against employees in pay by gender, and another would deny new awards to contractors that owe employees back pay.
The Professional Services Council, which represents 400 contractors, in August put out a wish list for Senate amendments. It objected to the bill’s plan to transfer the security clearance investigation process for the Defense Department from the National Background Investigations Bureau to the Defense Security Services, as well as provisions that would require losing bid protesters to pay the processing costs incurred by Government Accountability Office and require contracting officers to include workplace safety and health violations in contracting decisions.