This week Congress should pass the 2016 defense authorization bill—again.
It will be virtually identical to the one that President Obama vetoed just weeks ago. The only change: a $5-billion reduction in costs so it complies with the budget deal reached last week.
But passage of the updated authorization is no done deal. If Obama sticks to his guns, he could veto the next version of the bill as well.
While many in the Republican Party assume that the president will sign the revamped bill, it fails to address most of his stated objections to the original. Signing the new bill, therefore, would make clear the hypocrisy of his earlier veto message.
When Obama spiked the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) a few weeks ago, he gave three reasons for his action: the budget situation, restrictions on closing the prison at Guantanamo Bay, and a lack of “essential” defense reforms. By raising domestic spending by $33 billion, the budget deal addressed one—but only one—part of the first objection. The rest remain untouched.
Obama’s objection to a lack of defense reforms was never very convincing. The NDAA he vetoed actually contained the most significant defense reforms in a decade or more. And many of the specific “reforms” the White House wanted in the bill—like increasing TRICARE fees and retiring the A-10—would have reduced spending (in general, a not unworthy goal), but they are not actually reforms. In these areas, the text of the bill won’t be changing, so the president will have to decide whether to stick to his veto guns on this rather dubious point or accept the major defense reforms proposed in the bill.
The president’s second unaddressed objection is the bill language that restricts his ability to transfer terrorist detainees from the prison at Guantanamo Bay to the United States and certain other countries. Restrictive Guantanamo language actually originated from the Democratic-controlled Congress in 2009, and versions of it have been carried in every NDAA signed into law by Obama. Of course, before signing those NDAAs into law, the president vociferously opposed the Gitmo language. Once again, the language in this year’s NDAA won’t be changing. The president will have a choice to make.
Lastly, Obama said he vetoed the NDAA because it “fails to authorize funding for our national defense in a fiscally responsible manner.” He went on to provide two reasons: the use of Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) funding to circumvent spending caps and the lack of funding increases for non-defense portions of the federal budget.
The recently passed Bipartisan Budget Agreement (BBA) increased funding for both defense and non-defense discretionary budgets, but it actually expands the use of OCO funding to cover non-defense base budget costs as well as defense base budget costs. Obama signed the BBA into law, so apparently his objection was never truly the misuse of OCO funding, but simply to the idea of increasing defense spending without dollar-for-dollar increases to non-defense spending.
This leaves Obama in an interesting position. Two (and a half) of his original justifications for vetoing the NDAA remain. If he signs the new NDAA, it will show that his previous veto was purely about political leverage, not policy objections or even the use of budget gimmicks. If he vetoes the new bill, he will be taking a stand on Guantanamo Bay provisions that were originally written by Democrats. And with the budget deal in place, there are likely enough Democrats in the House and Senate to override a veto.
Despite the potential for an embarrassing exposure of hypocrisy, a veto of the new NDAA is unlikely. The president has signed bills just like this one in the past, and the potential political gain from vetoing the bill is probably outweighed by the potential cost of having a veto overridden by Congress. Whatever the president ultimately chooses to do, his actions will reveal the true priorities and motivations that led to him to veto the NDAA the first time.
Originally published in Breaking Defense.