A Tale of Two Chairmen: Adventures with the Defense Budget


It’s defense budget season on Capitol Hill, and at the center of it all are two chairmen with two very different approaches to the defense bill.

This week, the House of Representatives will consider their version of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) for fiscal year 2017. The bill was developed by Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-Texas) Chairman of the House Armed Services Committee (HASC), along with the other 62 members of his committee. It was marked up in a marathon committee meeting three weeks ago and is now almost 1,300 pages long. The House will continue amending it, with more than 300 amendments up for possible consideration.

On the other side of the Capitol, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) chairs the Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC), which is developing its own version of the bill. Last week the committee marked up its bill, but the full bill text hasn’t been released. Only a summary of major provisions is currently available.

Both bills will change significantly before McCain and Thornberry start negotiating on the final product, but it’s clear that they won’t be starting close to each other on many things. To be clear, McCain and Thornberry share many goals. They are both deeply concerned about a military that is getting smaller and faces serious readiness problems. They both want to improve how the Department of Defense operates by reforming things like defense acquisition, military healthcare, and a range of topics lumped under “Goldwater-Nichols reform.”

But while their goals may largely overlap, their timelines are very different. McCain faces a tough reelection.  Even if he is re-elected, there is a decent chance that Republicans could lose their majority in the Senate, costing McCain control of the SASC. McCain is pulling out all the stops—particularly on issues like acquisition, health care, and Goldwater-Nichols reform — because this may be his last shot.

Thornberry, on the other hand, is not expected to be seriously challenged this year. He has won his last three elections with 80 percent or more of the vote. And while impact of the presidential race is unclear, it seems unlikely that Republicans will lose control of the House. Thornberry is working on the same issues as McCain, but he seems to view his agenda as something to be accomplished over the next few years, not just in one bill.

In short, McCain might be working on his last NDAA, while Thornberry likely has another two or four years in the driver’s seat. These different timelines partially explain why two chairmen with such similar goals are building such different bills.

Fights Ahead

The House and Senate versions of the NDAA will differ on a range of policy issues, but the biggest difference will be in their budget structure. The House bill cuts $18 billion from funding for operations in Afghanistan and against ISIL and it uses that money to pay for a larger and more well-trained military. This budget maneuver means that the Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) fund will run out in April of 2017. Thornberry argues that dramatic readiness shortfalls and the need to increase the size of the military warrant the budget maneuver in his bill. He believes that the next president can request a supplemental funding bill early next year to cover the last five months of operations that year. Thornberry uses this $18 billion to do a range of things not included in President Obama’s budget proposal, like grow the Army by 20,000 soldiers, significantly increase maintenance and training funding, and buy more ships, planes, and helicopters to replace aging equipment.

At this point, the Senate bill follows Obama’s proposal of lower spending for regular defense needs and higher spending for operations in Afghanistan and against ISIL. Consequently, the Senate bill will forgo many of the major readiness and force structure investments in the House bill. We don’t have the full details yet, but things like growing the Army and Marine Corps and buying additional ships for the Navy and planes for the Air Force will likely not appear in the Senate bill. However, McCain has expressed interest in trying to increase the total budget authority in his bill when it comes to the Senate floor.

  House NDAA Obama Proposal & Senate NDAA
Total base budget spending (including OCO for base) $574 billion $556 billion
Overseas Contingency Operations $36 billion (covers Afghanistan & counter-ISIL mission through April of 2017 instead of September of 2017) $54 billion (covers OCO for the full fiscal year, through September of 2017)
Total defense spending $610 billion $610 billion

While the budget structure creates a number of major differences, there will also be a slew of defense policy debates on issues like Russian rocket engines, religious freedom, military health care reform, acquisition reform, Goldwater-Nichols reform, registering women for Selective Service, and the mighty Sage Grouse. We can also expect debates about the need for a new Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF), the role of NATO, troop levels in Afghanistan, and much more. You can find some recommendations on what the bill should focus on here at War on the Rocks, and you can follow the work of many great defense journalists by tracking #FY17NDAA on Twitter.

Tune in this week as the House debates the NDAA, likely late into the night on Tuesday and Wednesday. And the Senate floor may take up the NDAA as soon as next week. But even if both chambers pass their bills soon, the fundamental differences mean that a negotiated final bill is unlikely to reach the White House before the election. Congress’s work on the defense bills has a long way to go.


Justin T. Johnson is the senior budget policy analyst in The Heritage Foundation’s Center for National Defense.