In 2012, Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) wrote a report highlighting wasteful spending at the Pentagon. Entitled, “The Department of Everything,” it identified a key driver of inefficiency: the Department of Defense was being held responsible for far too many different areas of competency, many of them unrelated to its core mission.
Nearly five years later, the House of Representatives seems determined to make sure the Defense Department remains a wasteful “Department of Everything.”
When the House Armed Services Committee passed its version of the National Defense Authorization Act(NDAA), lawmakers greeted it with more than 400 floor amendments. The topics range from funding breast cancer research to changing the fuel profile of the country.
Why the deluge of non-germane amendments? The NDAA is one of the few bills that Congress is almost certain to pass. Consequently, many lawmakers see it as the best vehicle for their favorite legislation, even if it is only tangentially related to national defense.
Not all of them. This year, the amendments range from trivial — like creating a “National Rosie the Riveter Day” — to the overreaching — like resolving the entire budget caps debate and insisting that any increase in defense spending be matched with an increase in non-defense spending.
There is one new theme, however: a spate of NDAA amendments designed to target President Trump and his commercial holdings. For example, one amendment would require the Defense Department to calculate costs of transporting the president, especially costs incurred during trips to properties owned by the president and his immediate family.
Another amendment would prohibit the use of NDAA funds to conduct business with any entities owned or controlled by the president and his immediate family members. Regardless of your opinion of President Trump, you can agree that a military policy bill is not the proper place for these politically-inspired proposals.
Another worrisome trend among these amendments: a rash of new reporting requirements for the Defense Department. Sure, some of the proposed reports would probably be worthwhile. But every one of them — from the valuable to the frivolous — would demand additional time, effort and resources from an already overworked Pentagon. Lawmakers should carefully weigh the necessity of new reporting requirements — individually and cumulatively — and add them, but sparingly.
There’s a larger problem with having to deal with a plethora of amendments — random or otherwise. It distracts lawmakers from focusing on what the NDAA should be doing: properly funding the military and shaping our armed forces.
The reason an NDAA passes virtually every year is because it’s the mechanism whereby Congress fulfills its first responsibility as a branch of the federal government: it provides for the common defense. That is the one function Congress has been able to achieve in times in which deadlock dominates the legislative agenda.
Even if all these amendments were completely inoffensive, they accumulate and increase the cost of the legislation both in time and resources. The benign proposals also serve to obfuscate amendments that would make substantive changes — such as the one that would “simply” reduce defense funding by one percent. Lawmakers will have to sift through each line of more than 400 amendments to make sure one of these landmines doesn’t wind up buried in the final bill.
Congress should focus the NDAA process on actual national security issues. The large number of amendments reflects poorly on our capacity to determine defense policy and, broader, in our capacity to legislate. A slew of non-germane amendments can log-roll into an “everything NDAA” that slowly but surely transforms the Pentagon into the “Department of Everything.”
This piece originally appeared in The Hill on 7/14/17