President Obama has vetoed only four bills since entering the Oval Office. That number may rise to five this week. Congress yesterday shipped the defense authorization bill to the Oval Office, and Mr. Obama has threatened to dust off his veto pen.
Defense authorization bills have been vetoed before. But this would be the first time a president nixed one because of something that has nothing to do with defense policy. A little veto history may be helpful.
For 53 consecutive years, Congress has passed a National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) which establishes policies and budgets for the Defense Department. In that 53-year period, the NDAA has been vetoed only four times.
The first came in 1978, when President Jimmy Carter vetoed H.R. 10929, the NDAA for fiscal year 1979. Though the bill was written by Democratic majorities in the House and Senate, Carter vetoed it because it included funding for a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier. Two months after the veto, Congress passed a new version of the NDAA without the nuclear aircraft carrier. President Carter signed it into law.
In 1988 President Ronald Reagan vetoed H.R. 4264, the FY 1989 NDAA, primarily because of a dispute over his missile defense program. The Democratic Congress proposed cutting $3.7 billion from R&D on the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI). Reagan also expressed concern about cuts to ballistic missile submarines and ICBM modernization programs. Once again, Congress removed the offending provisions, and the president signed the new version into law.
President Bill Clinton exercised his veto power on the FY 1996 NDAA, arguing that it "would unacceptably restrict my ability to carry out this country's national security objectives and substantially interfere with the implementation of key national defense programs." President Clinton and the Republican Congress clashed over a variety of issues, such as a missile defense program that Clinton believed would have conflicted with the ABM Treaty, restrictions on the president’s ability to conduct contingency operations, and the elimination of funding for the Defense Enterprise Fund. Yet again, Congress removed the objectionable provisions, and the NDAA was signed into law.
In 2007, President Bush vetoed the 2008 NDAA. The conflict centered on the Democratic Congress’ desire to freeze Iraqi assets in U.S. banks. Unlike the previous policy beefs, this was largely a technical issue with unexpectedly large diplomatic implications that popped up late in the process. In the end, Congress and the president worked out their differences, and a modified NDAA was signed into law.
Which brings us to the pending veto drama. Mr. Obama has threatened to veto H.R. 1735, the FY 2016 NDAA. But unlike any of the four previous disputes, the President’s primary objection lies not with a policy contained in the bill, but with something completely beyond the scope of the bill.
The administration vows to veto the defense bill unless Congress agrees to increase non-defense spending. The White House issued a statement saying that Mr. Obama “will not fix defense without fixing non-defense spending.” Of course, non-defense spending is not in the NDAA’s bailiwick. Given the rising threats around the world and the fact that defense spending has been cut 15% in the last four years, “fixing” defense should be considered on its own merits.
The White House has also objected to a budget gimmick Congressional Republicans used to increase spending in the NDAA. Objecting to budget gimmicks is righteous in theory, but the White House only seems to care about proper budget procedure when it is a tool for cutting defense spending. It’s clear from numerous White House statements that the president’s core objection is not with how defense spending would be increased, but rather with the fact that Congress is willing to increase the defense budget and leave the rest of so-called discretionary spending flat.
The White House has also objected to provisions in the NDAA that bar closing the prison at Guantanamo Bay and transferring its terrorist detainees elsewhere. Unlike non-defense spending, this is an issue that pertains to the actual bill. But it’s not a new one.
Mr. Obama has threatened to veto every NDAA Congress has sent him, often due to Guantanamo Bay restrictions. In the end, he signed all the previous bills. Clearly, the president does not like the Gitmo language, but he has lived with it in the past, making it unlikely to be sufficient justification for a veto this time around.
If President Obama decides to veto the defense bill it will be an historic event: the first time an NDAA was vetoed primarily because of an issue that the bill itself cannot address. At a time of growing threats, Congress and the American people must determine whether it’s appropriate to use the defense bill for domestic budgetary leverage.
-Justin T. Johnson is the senior analyst for defense budgeting policy in The Heritage Foundation’s Allison Center for National Security and Foreign Policy.
This piece originally appeared in Real Clear Defense