The 2024 NDAA—Bipartisan Hope Amid Partisan Chaos

The 2024 NDAA—Bipartisan Hope Amid Partisan Chaos

Enacting the NDAA at a time when the current Congress can’t seem to agree on much of anything, much less by wide bipartisan margins, is a substantial achievement.

As the 118th Congress wraps up its first session this month, its performance in meeting its primary annual task of funding the federal government, and particularly national defense (the only mandatory and exclusive job of the federal government), is a clear failure. Not a single fiscal year (FY) 2024 appropriations bill has yet been enacted. All federal activities languish under continuing resolutions (CRs), which temporarily extend the previous year’s spending. For defense, this means a loss of $219 million per day in buying power while new programs and production efforts are delayed.

But there is one accomplishment related to defense worth noting. Congress has continued a hallowed tradition of passing the annual defense policy bill—the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). At more than 3,000 pages, there is plenty to assess and critique in the measure and its accompanying conference report. Still, there are also three fundamental points to consider on why enactment of the authorization bill is vital to national security.

First, particularly in a year like the one we just witnessed, the ability to compromise and produce such a huge piece of legislation that then passes both chambers by wide margins—87-13 in the Senate and 310-118 in the House—is crucial. Even in an acrimonious, floundering, and often counter-productive political environment, Congress can still act in the nation’s interest on a bipartisanship basis to support defense. 

In recent years, the NDAA has also been a precursor to the even more crucial work of finishing the defense appropriations bill. A large majority of both chambers is again on record supporting the defense caps that the Fiscal Responsibility Act set in May. Though these caps are too low to support the defense strategy and modernize the military, adhering to them for FY 2024 and readdressing them as part of the FY 2025 process is much better than the huge cuts that would be necessary under a year-long CR.

Second, participation by a large number of members from both chambers in the development, debate, and negotiation of the defense authorization bill is educational. The more members who understand defense programs, capabilities, structure, processes, and outcomes, the better it is for the nation’s security and overall public discourse on these fundamental issues. In addition, since the NDAA is considered one of the few non-appropriations must-pass bills of the year, it generates a lot of interest across Congress. This attention often leads to loading the policy bill with tangential or unrelated issues, but it also pulls even more members into the education process on national security matters. For example, this year’s measure contains entire divisions devoted to veterans, judiciary, immigration, border patrol, federal data, information security, and financial services matters. It also includes the entire State Department and Intelligence Authorization Acts. But it also generated hundreds of amendments during hours of debate, broadening the reach and knowledge on key topics like defense of Taiwan, critical support for Ukraine, industrial base and supply chain vulnerabilities, readiness challenges, force modernization, recruiting shortfalls, nuclear triad modernization and lagging competitiveness in key areas such as hypersonics, microelectronics, and space access. The broad range of issues covered by the deep bench of congressional experts as part of the legislative branch oversight function is critical to the nation’s confidence in, and connection to, the military, both of which have been waning in recent years.

Finally, the bill is significant for the actual authorities and direction it contains on a wide range of topics, including broad perspectives on foreign policy and strategy; specific direction on force structure, decision processes, and organization; extension of personnel authorities for pay and compensation; and programmatic and organizational guidance and initiatives. These efforts signal our priorities to our partners, allies, and adversaries. In some cases, they also prompt real, incremental, positive change in the way defense does business and invests resources.

For example, this year, the bill highlights priorities related to countering China, supporting Taiwan, and increasing capabilities in the Pacific region. It established a new U.S. training program with Taiwan and required a plan to accelerate deliveries of Harpoon anti-ship missiles to Taiwan. It provides specific policy guidance on the shipbuilding defense industrial base and the significance of prepositioned stocks and munitions stockpiles. It adds six more critical munitions to the multi-year procurement program, including Tomahawk and Mk48 torpedoes, which are essential to deterring China. 

It continues to emphasize the space and cyber warfighting domains and codifies the role of innovation organizations like the Defense Innovation Unit, the Office of Strategic Capital, and the new Principle Technology Transition Advisor. Defense is underfunded and languishing under a destructive, disruptive, wasteful CR again. Challenges abound in readiness, modernization, and supply chains. But, enacting the NDAA for the sixty-third consecutive year, particularly when the current Congress can’t seem to agree on much of anything, much less by wide bipartisan margins, is a substantial achievement. It is a nod to the overarching importance of national security and an auspicious portent for a final defense appropriations bill early in the new year.

About the Author

Elaine McCusker is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. She is a former acting undersecretary of defense (comptroller).