On July 12, the House of Representatives passed its version of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) for Fiscal Year 2020. The NDAA, which has been passed by Congress every year since 1962, is an annual fixture of congressional military oversight. It “authorizes” or defines the Defense Department’s activities each year, granting legal authority to all military policies and programs. After emerging from the House Armed Services Committee, the NDAA traditionally passes by a large bipartisan margin. In 2018, the vote was 344-81. In 2019, the vote was 351-81. So it came as a surprise to many when this year’s NDAA passed in the House by a vote of 220-197, with not a single Republican voting for it.
While the House will have another chance to vote on the NDAA after it comes back from conference with the Senate (which already passed its own version by a characteristically bipartisan vote of 86-8), members of both parties are rightfully concerned about the tradition that was shattered on July 12. Rep. Mike Johnson (R-LA) summarized the GOP view in a statement titled “Democrats Politicize NDAA,” claiming, “Democrats in the House bucked that long-standing precedent and created a partisan bill that promotes a leftist agenda… [they] are holding our military hostage to score political points with their base.”
Johnson was presumably referring to a number of progressive amendments tacked on to the bill, including ones to reverse President Trump’s transgender troops ban, prohibit the military from spending funds at President Trump’s personal properties and on military parades, bar Trump from leaving NATO, and block funding for short-range nuclear missiles.
Unsurprisingly, Democrats in Congress took a different view of who was responsible for the party-line vote. House Majority Leader Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-NY) issued a competing statement alleging that Republicans had politicized the NDAA by withholding votes during the committee markup process. “In doing so,” Hoyer wrote, “they voted to deny our troops a pay raise, reject critical defense initiatives, and ignore the requests of our military.” He added, “supporting our troops and defending our nation should not be partisan issues.”
While the parties are unlikely to come to a full agreement on who politicized this normally standard procedure, the immediate finger-pointing suggests both sides agree on one thing: this breakdown in precedent is cause for alarm. Both Johnson and Hoyer fell back on lazy rhetoric in their statements – “voting against my party is voting against the troops!” – but they are right to imply that passing the NDAA in Congress with broad support from both parties is critically important. The annual bipartisan passage of the NDAA sends an important signal that American defense policy is not the project of one faction or the other, but of the entire nation.
As civil-military relations expert Alice Hunt Friend has written, “Ideally, each side of the civil-military relationship can have faith that when it comes to national security policy their counterpart is squarely focused on the national interest, not the fortunes of a political party.” This year, the NDAA passed by House Democrats will be reconciled to the version passed by the Republican-controlled Senate; eventual bipartisan support in the House is all but assured. Voters and military personnel need not be overly concerned that defense policy has overly politicized in 2019.
However, the House vote this year has shown that the future of this norm is in jeopardy. If party line votes on the NDAA persist, we could see – during a future period of unified government control – the entire defense authorization bill passed with votes from only one party. Given the trend towards party-line voting in both the House and Senate on everything from tax reform, to judicial nominees, to healthcare policy, this hypothetical future is not inconceivable.
Such a situation would be unfortunate: it would damage the perception of military non-partisanship and give Americans legitimate reason to believe the military was being utilized to serve “the fortunes of [one] political party.” The military is one of the most trusted institutions in American society in part because of its ability to stay above-the-fray of domestic politics. While any informed citizen knows that political considerations help shape the task environment in which our military operates, Americans can generally trust that military power is applied in the service of the entire nation – not one political party or the other. An overtly partisan NDAA would rightfully cause citizens to question whether or not the enormous confidence placed in the U.S. military was finally being exploited for partisan ends.
Democrats in Congress have every right to include language in the NDAA that reflects the agenda their constituents elected them to execute. At the same time, the maintenance of healthy civil-military relations must be among their priorities, meaning that they should be willing to sacrifice some agenda items when they preclude the other party from being able to support the bill.
Conversely, Republicans also have every right to vote against policies to which they object. But in doing so, they must be aware that the erosion of certain civil-military norms could in fact be more dangerous than the specific policies they vote against. Norms are hard to legislate, but elected officials should not lose sight of the fact that the trust between Americans and their armed forces is an important component of military strength. They should work to keep that trust intact, and bipartisan defense policymaking is one way to do just that.