April showers bring legislative flowers for defense

April is shaping up to be a pivotal month for Congress, especially for the House Armed Services Committee and the 2018 defense authorization bill.

House Armed Services Chairman Mac Thornberry (R-Texas) said he’s hopeful Congress can actually appropriate 2017 funds to the Defense Department before April 1.

The government is now operating in its fifth month at 2016 spending levels due to a continuing resolution and Congress’ inability to come to an agreement on how funds should be spent.

“The fiscal year is marching ahead and so to have any hope of spending the money efficiently we need to get [the appropriations] done quickly, and secondly, 2018 is backing up here,” Thornberry told reporters during a Feb. 16 briefing.

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Money to fund the government writ large is set to expire in April when the continuing resolution runs out. Congress will either have to pass the appropriations bills or sign on for a longer period of time under 2016 funding. One option would be for Congress to pass 2016 funding levels until the end of fiscal 2017. That is something Thornberry said he is not willing to swallow.

“I do not believe the people who sat in this room would support a yearlong CR,” Thornberry said in the House Armed Services Committee hearing room. “My bottom line is we can’t wait to do what is right for the country.”

DoD still might get an injection of funds even if Congress is unable to pass appropriations bills for 2017. The Pentagon is sending a supplemental budget to Congress by March 1.

Thornberry said he hopes the items in the budget will look like the $15 billion Congress had to scrap from the 2017 defense authorization act in order to get it into law.

“The place where I have suggested the administration start [with the supplemental] is look at the items that were in the House passed NDAA last year and that ultimately did not make it into the final conference report that was signed into law,”  Thornberry said on Feb. 6. “I think in my view they ought to be at the top of the list, especially some modernization items.”

The House bill called for 10 carrier wings, instead of the nine President Barack Obama requested. It would have procured 15 F-18s instead of two, 72 Blackhawk helicopters instead of 36 and 74 F-35s instead of 63.

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The bill called for other aircraft procurements and a larger Navy, increasing battleships by three and Virginia Class Submarines by one.

The bill also increased funding for the Missile Defense Agency and the National Nuclear Security Agency.

Thornberry said the supplemental is needed to turn the corner on the readiness.

Acquisition and NDAA

April may bring Thornberry’s annual defense acquisition reforms as well. Since taking the gavel two years ago, he has made acquisition reform a top priority in the defense authorization bills.

Thornberry said he plans to repeat his previous practice of releasing his acquisition reforms as a separate bill before the NDAA comes out, that way lawmakers and other stakeholders can look at the provisions and make comments on them before they are folded into the larger NDAA.

Thornberry said he’d like to release the draft bill in April.

“I’ve been having meetings with my staff about provisions in it. I don’t know if they have legislative language yet,” Thornberry said.

He added, in the best case scenario, the House version of the NDAA markup will be in May.