House Passes FY2021 Defense Authorization Bill, Veto Threatened

House Passes FY2021 Defense Authorization Bill, Veto Threatened

The House passed the FY2021 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) today by a veto-proof majority of 295-125, an important margin if President Trump follows through on his threat to veto the bill if it reaches his desk as is. The dispute is over renaming military bases, not space activities, but could endanger the entire legislation. The Senate is nearing passage of its own version of the NDAA, which also has a renaming provision.

The House bill, H.R. 6395, is named after Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-TX), who is retiring this year. He is the top Republican on the House Armed Services Committee and was its chairman when Republicans controlled the House. It provides $732 billion for national defense activities at DOD and the Department of Energy, including $69 billion for Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO).

Source: House Armed Services Committee press release.

DOD space programs are a very small portion of that total, about $18 billion not including classified programs at the National Reconnaissance Office for which funding information is not public.

In addition to space-related provisions in the bill as reported from subcommittee and full committee, several  amendments were adopted during floor debate.

Rep. Dan Crenshaw (R-Texas)

Perhaps most intriguing is one offered by retired Navy SEAL Rep. Dan Crenshaw (R-TX) requiring the Space Force to use the same system and rank structure used by the Navy.  Admirals instead of Generals, for example.

The move may delight sci-fi aficionados accustomed to Captains Kirk, Picard, Sisko, and Janeway among others, but it would also mirror how ranks were set up for the Marine Corps — opposite to the parent Department. The Marines are part of the Department of the Navy, but use the rank structure of the Army and Air Force (Generals not Admirals).  The Space Force is part of the Department of the Air Force, so this would make its ranks opposite to the Air Force.

Already, Gen. Jay Raymond is “Chief of Space Operations,” akin to the Navy’s top military officer, Chief of Naval Operations, rather than “Space Force Chief of Staff” parallel to Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein.

Brent Ziarnick of the Air Staff and Command College argues it will force the Space Force to create its own culture, separate from the Air Force.  In The Space Review last year, Ziarnick postulated that the Space Force’s mission is more analogous to the maritime domain than land or sea and the Space Force should “become distinct from the Air Force” and develop its own identity. Like the Marine Corps, the Space Force “will need a strong, proud, and fiercely independent sense of identity if it is to succeed in creating a successful military space culture that the President, Congress, and defense leaders demand,” according to Ziarnick.

Other amendments adopted during floor debate would —

  • give the Space Development Agency special hiring authority to attract experts in science and engineering
  • require a report on the effect of COVID-19 on the space industrial base and DOD space programs
  • require the space strategy and assessment to include Iran and North Korea and adds the Director of National Intelligence as a tasked senior official
  • require the Secretary of Defense, in consultation with the Secretary of the Air Force and the Chief of Space Operations, to report on DOD processes and procedures for identifying and securing frequency licenses for national security space ground assets, and
  • require a report on the future role of the Naval Postgraduate School in space education

Earlier today, the Administration issued a veto threat because the bill includes a section that requires military installations to be renamed if they are currently named after “any person who served in the political or military leadership of any armed rebellion against the United States,” a reference to the Confederacy.

A provision with the same intent, but a different process, is in the Senate version of the bill (S. 4049) currently being debated on that side of the Hill.  The Senate may complete action this week, too.  The White House has not issued a Statement of Administration policy on that bill yet.

Overriding a presidential veto requires a two-thirds vote of members voting in the House and Senate. When the House has its full complement of 435 members, that means 290 votes.  Currently there are five vacancies, so 287 would be needed.

Voting to override a veto is a very different political calculus than voting on a bill, however, so the fact that today’s vote was veto-proof does not necessarily portend the outcome if Trump actually were to veto the final version that emerges from conference.

Veto threats on defense authorization bills are not uncommon, but Presidents do not always follow through.  The last time one was actually vetoed  was in 2015 when President Obama objected to the FY2016 NDAA primarily because of budget issues.  Congress passed a revised version that Obama signed after reaching a deal on the budget.

In fact, Congress and the White House ultimately have managed to agree on NDAAs every year since 1961.

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