The Senate and House Armed Services committees have released their must-pass $886.3 billion defense bill, which would provide the largest raise in more than two decades for service members, temporarily extend a contentious surveillance program, and strengthen the US posture in the Indo-Pacific region to deter Chinese actions.
The roughly 3,100-page National Defense Authorization Act for fiscal year 2024 was adopted by the Senate on Wednesday, and senators hope it will be passed by the House by the end of the week. The deal authorizes $28 billion more than the previous fiscal year or nearly 3% more.
The Act establishes the Department of Defense’s policy agenda and authorizes funding in accordance with the Pentagon’s priorities. However, it does not allocate the funding.
Notably absent from the combined plan are two contentious clauses on abortion and transgender healthcare access that were included in the House military policy bill that passed this summer. The House version would have prevented the secretary of defense from paying for or reimbursing abortion-related expenses. It would also have prohibited a military health care program from funding hormone therapies for transgender people or gender confirmation operations.
However, the final version of the bill includes a number of safeguards geared at “ending wokeness in the military,” according to a summary released by the Republican-led House Armed Services Committee.
Funding for a separate $105 billion national security measure that would increase help to Israel and Ukraine remains a source of dispute in Congress, with Senate Republicans urging that increased foreign aid be accompanied by big border security policy changes. While there have been discussions to try to reach an agreement, no bipartisan agreement has been reached.
The defense authorization bill would prolong the Ukraine Security Assistance Initiative until the end of 2026 and fund $300 million for the program in the current and following fiscal years. Rather than drawing directly from current US stocks of weapons, the program provides cash for the federal government to hire industry to develop weapons and security services for shipment to Ukraine.
According to summaries published by the House and the Democratic-led Senate Armed Services committees, the following are some important provisions in the National Defense Authorization Act:
Assistance to service members and their families
The package includes various measures aimed at improving service members’ salaries and benefits in the hopes of increasing recruitment and retention.
It would increase military members’ base salary by 5.2% and enable a monthly bonus for junior enlisted soldiers. The bill would also change the calculation of the Basic Allowance for Housing to increase reimbursement for junior enlisted military members, allowing them to better pay rising rents. It would also increase the Basic Needs Allowance to assist low-income military members with families.
The law would also fund $38 million more than the budget request for new family housing and $356 million more than the budget request for barracks renovation and construction.
To assist military spouses, it would increase payments for relicensing or business expenditures, as well as help federal employees keep their jobs by allowing them to telework when service members change locations.
In addition, the bill would lower childcare costs for military families and fund $153 million more than the budget request for the building of additional childcare centers.
Furthermore, it would allow the Department of Defense to fund Armed Services members to participate in clinical experiments including psychedelic drugs and cannabis to treat post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injuries.
Surveillance of foreign nationals without a warrant
The package includes a short-term extension of a contentious statute that allows warrantless surveillance of foreign nationals, prolonging the program’s authorization through April 19.
The statute, Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, allows the US government to gain intelligence by collecting communications records of non-Americans using US-based communications services who are located in the United States.
Section 702 supporters claim it is an essential tool for ensuring national security, but it has come under fire from certain lawmakers for its misuse.
Concentration on the Indo-Pacific region
The measure would allocate $14.7 billion for the Pacific Deterrence Initiative and extend it through fiscal year 2024 to prevent Chinese aggression. It would also develop a training, advising, and institutional capacity-building program for Taiwan’s military forces.
It would allow the US, UK, and Australia to implement the AUKUS agreement and authorize the future sale of nuclear-capable submarines to Australia. The bill would also create the Indo-Pacific Campaigning Initiative, which would allow the US Indo-Pacific Command to enhance the frequency and scale of exercises, among other things.
‘Putting an end to wokeness in the military’
According to the House summary, the bill would restrict financing for the teaching, training, or promotion of critical racial theory in the military, including at service academies and Department of Defense schools. It would also make it illegal to display any unauthorized flags, such as the LGBTQ pride flag, on military grounds.
It would also impose a hiring block on posts related to diversity, equity, and inclusion until the US Government Accountability Office completed its inquiry into the Pentagon’s DEI initiatives. Furthermore, the plan would reduce and cap DEI employees’ base compensation at $70,000 per year.
A Parents Bill of Rights is included in the package, which would provide parents of children enrolled in Department of Defense schools the right to examine curriculum, books, and instructional materials, meet with teachers, and grant consent before schools undertake medical exams or screenings of youngsters.
Furthermore, the legislation emphasizes that no funding may be used for drag shows, Drag Queen Story Hours, or similar events.
Assist service members who did not receive the Covid-19 immunization.
The bill would compel the defense secretary to notify the 8,000 military members who were discharged for failing to receive the COVID-19 vaccine about the process for being reinstated.
It would also classify the period of inactivity as a “career intermission” to ensure that future promotions are not jeopardized, and it would force the Defense Department to grant requests to update the personnel files of those dismissed so that they can receive full retirement benefits.