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What’s in the current National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), and why is it so controversial?

Standing for Freedom Center Staff /

The National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) is an annual piece of federal legislation passed by Congress that sets funding levels and policy priorities for the Department of Defense (DoD) and a variety of other federal defense-related programs, including nuclear weapons at the Department of Energy (DoE) and intelligence operations.

The NDAA is what’s known as an “authorization of appropriations.” Put simply, that means this bill sets a funding level, but it doesn’t actually provide any funding. The money comes later, via the Defense Appropriations bill. Along with setting the funding limit, the NDAA is a heavy policy-making bill. That is, it is full of changes as to how the DoD implements certain programs or undertakes operations. The NDAA is Congress’ annual opportunity to redirect or reaffirm our nation’s military posture and actions. Some of the more notable policy-related issues, developments, and disputes of recent years include items like the creation of the Space Force, significant changes to the military justice system, the question of undocumented illegal aliens serving in the military, the DoD’s position on transgender troops, whether or not women should be included in the draft, and so forth.

For more in-depth reading on the purpose and particulars of the NDAA, here is an accessible report from the Congressional Research Service.

How does the NDAA process work?

In a brief overview, the NDAA process is a classic example of how most people think a bill passes on Capitol Hill. The respective committees — in this case, the House Armed Services Committee (HASC) and the Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) — each pass their own version of the annual NDAA. Then, the full chambers of the House and Senate vote on the package, with each usually considering hundreds of amendments in the process. After both the House and the Senate pass their versions, a process known as a “conference” begins for the HASC and SASC to work out a negotiated final version. That final version then is voted on by both the House and the Senate one more time and, assuming it passes, goes to the President for his signature.

One of the more remarkable things about the NDAA is its current track record of being signed into law, especially in our divided political climate. As of 2020, the NDAA had successfully passed both the House and the Senate and been signed into law by the President for 60 consecutive years.  Additionally, the bill has a long track record of being a bipartisan effort; regardless of which party is in charge, the bill often gets a large number of votes by both Republicans and Democrats.

Unfortunately, this track record of success makes the NDAA a target for lawmakers who are trying to get any number of unrelated, pet-projects signed into law. They get added to the NDAA as amendments, because of the NDAA’s high rate of successful passage. Furthermore, many bad policies get “snuck” into this massive bill, and there is pressure on members of Congress to vote for it anyway because it “supports our troops.”

What’s the status of the House and Senate NDAA bills?

The Fiscal Year 2022 House NDAA passed the House of Representatives on September 23 by a vote of 316-113. The yes vote includes 181 Democrats and 135 Republicans, while 38 Democrats and 75 Republicans voted against it. You can see who voted and how on this “roll call” by the House Clerk.

On the Senate side, the Senate NDAA passed out of the SASC in late July, but it has yet to be debated and voted on by the entire Senate chamber.

At this point in the year, it is most likely that the entire process won’t get done until December at the earliest — if it gets done at all.

What’s in the 2022 NDAA?

There is too much to mention in one article, but here are just some of the provisions and policies that can be categorized as good, bad, and ugly:

The Good

  • Strong Funding Levels. First, the arguably best part of the NDAA is that it sets funding levels for the military, enabling the United States to defend and advance our national security interests at home and aboard. This year, the bill authorizes $778 billion for the overall defense spending budget, an increase of 5 percent from last year’s levels.
  • Pay Raise for the Troops. The bill authorizes a 2.7 percent pay increase for servicemembers.
  • Continued Investment in Missile Defense. According to a memo by the Republican members of the HASC, the NDAA “reverses President Biden’s cuts to missile defense…continues funding for nuclear triad modernization…and prohibits any reduction in the number of intercontinental ballistic missiles or retiring or reconverting our low-yield nuclear warheads.” These are the key pieces necessary to maintain a strong nuclear missile defense system in our age of great power competition with China and Russia.
  • Establishes Exemptions for the COVID Vaccine Mandate and Protects Troops Against Retaliation. Section 720 of the NDAA establishes procedures for which service members can be exempted from taking the COVID-19 vaccine for religious, medical, and administrative reasons, including a test showing antibodies from a previous COVID-19 infection. Section 716 requires the Pentagon to honorably discharge any service member who refuses the vaccine (but doesn’t qualify for an exemption). The Biden administration has since released a statement saying that it “strongly opposes” both of these sections.

The Bad

  • Unnecessary “Green New Deal” Climate Policies. Sections of this NDAA pressure the Pentagon to acquire electric or zero-emission vehicles and to reduce the carbon footprint of the DoD, hardly a priority in the fight against an advancing Chinese Community Party or a resurgent Taliban. It even mandates that the Navy launch a “plant-based protein pilot program” — that is, fake meat (Sec. 593).
  • “Red Flag” Laws that Threaten Our Service Members’ Second Amendment Rights. The NRA’s Institute for Legislative Action (ILA) highlighted two anti-gun provisions in the NDAA. The most concerning one is the “red flag” provision, which, the NRA-ILA explains, “ignores due process protections afforded by the U.S. Constitution and allows for the confiscation of firearms owned by those in the armed forces” simply on the basis of having a court protective order issued but before the full adjudication of due process.
  • New Countering-Extremism Office that Could be Used Against Americans. The bill creates a new “Office of Countering Extremism” that could be used to discipline and expel troops who engage in so-called “extremist activities” or belong to an “extremist organization.” Sadly, we know under progressive Democrats and the Biden Administration, this may very well mean service members who support issue- and policy-focused groups like the Tea Party or the NRA.

The Ugly

  • Promotes Critical Race Theory in Military Training. The current House NDAA entrenches the use of Critical Theory and Critical Race Theory in human resources training for federal employees, hidden under a section about “diversity, equity, and inclusion.” This anti-American ideology only serves to divide, not unite, our men and women in uniform. JV Venable, a senior research fellow in the Heritage Foundation’s Center for National Defense and 25-year veteran of the U.S. Air Force, recently raised the alarm on the impact of CRT on military morale and unit cohesion in an op-ed titled, “Critical race theory will destroy the fabric of our military.” 
  • Advances Radical Transgender Polices: The bill mandates that the Pentagon hire “gender advisors” for military personnel and continue to enshrine a radical pro-LGBTQ agenda at the expense of religious liberties and conscience protections.
  • Requires Women to Register for the Draft. In an unprecedented change, the House NDAA — if it were to become law — would require women to register for the Selective Service, also known as the draft, for the first time in our nation’s history. (This provision was also added by the SASC into the Senate version of the 2022 NDAA.) The House Freedom Caucus strongly opposed this measure, and Rep. Mary Miller, R-Ill., had this to say about the issue: “We are proud of the courageous women who have served and are serving in our military in defending our nation, but our mothers, sisters, wives and daughters should not be part of this draft. This is left-wing, woke agenda gone too far.”

Why You Should Care

The annual NDAA should be about one thing and one thing only: Ensuring that our military has the right funding and policy priorities it needs to keep Americans safe and ensuring that we maintain the greatest fighting force in the world. Using the bill as a means for radical progressive policies and the social-engineering of men and women in uniform is a disgrace — and a danger — to those who serve on the front lines. This year’s NDAA, unfortunately, contains a variety of leftist policies that will only serve to distract our senior military leaders from the real threats and weaken our fighting forces.

Stalwart conservative Rep. Chip Roy, R-Tex., has an excellent tweet-thread breaking down the many, seriously concerning policies included in this year’s NDAA. To summarize, he claimed that this bill, if passed, would contribute to a “woke military that drafts our daughters, wastes resources on Green New Deal garbage, holds no one accountable for the Afghanistan disaster, and prioritizes playing leftist politics over destroying our enemies.”

This goes against the purpose of this legislation. As defense experts with the Heritage Foundation have explained, “The NDAA and defense appropriations bill shape the national defense and serve as pivotal guides for the direction of the military in the coming year.”

Instead, these bills should focus on the real threats at hand — China, Russia, Iran, the Taliban, and other adversaries — and leave the radical social agenda of the Democrats out of it. Sadly, the House version of the FY 22 NDAA fails to take this approach. In summary, the more woke the Democrats make our military, the weaker it will be.

What You Can Do

As concerned citizens, you can contact your congressional representatives and senators and express your concern about the unnecessary and terrible policy items in the NDAA, like the ones listed here. You can engage with veterans in your community, helping them organize, thanking them for their service, and working with them to pressure Congress to pass better NDAAs.

The United States military is the greatest military in the world. We owe our men and women in uniform the highest respect and regard for their willingness to lay down their lives for the sake of our freedoms. And we owe our veterans the same respect. We can honor their sacrifice and their bravery by fighting to ensure they enjoy all the same freedoms while they serve — just as every other citizen enjoys. The U.S. Armed Forces aren’t meant to be some sort of woke-agenda testing ground. The NDAA should prioritize funding levels and competitive military policies. Let’s hope that our elected officials wake up to this fact and get back to treating the NDAA like the serious legislative endeavor it was always meant to be.