1. Update
  2. U.S. Wars & Militarism

Progress Seems Impossible, Until It Isn’t

Despite setbacks in the House and Senate FY21 defense authorization bill or NDAA, there are reasons to be hopeful.

By Diana Ohlbaum, July 27, 2020


Sometimes the mountain before us seems unscalable. But we persist in climbing it, and one day, we find ourselves at the peak.

Take Yemen, for example. In March 2018, only 44 senators supported a resolution to end U.S. participation in the Saudi and Emirati-led war in Yemen. Just nine months later – after Saudi aircraft bombed a school bus, killing 29 children, and Saudi agents brutally murdered journalist Jamal Khashoggi -- the Senate approved by a vote of 56-41 the very same resolution it had shunted aside in March.

It’s worth keeping this history in mind as we review the bidding on the FY 2021 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). Unlike last year, when numerous amendments we supported were included in the House-passed version, there is little to celebrate in this year’s bill. Heads stuck in the sand, Members of Congress largely ignored the lessons and imperatives created by the COVID-19 pandemic and movement for Black lives and racial justice.

House and Senate NDAA Outcomes

Within this larger picture of setbacks are clear signs of progress.

The House Armed Services Committee voted unanimously to approve an NDAA that authorizes obscene levels of Pentagon spending and fails to impose meaningful constraints on endless war. Only a few of the amendments FCNL supported were approved for floor consideration. We won on one important floor amendment – offered by Rep. Ben McAdams (UT-04) to prohibit funding for nuclear testing – but lost on two others, the first by Rep. Ilhan Omar (MN-05) to support continued U.S. troop withdrawal from Afghanistan, the second by Rep. Mark Pocan (WI-02) to reduce overall Pentagon spending by 10%.

On the Senate side, the picture was similar. Only two members of the Armed Services Committee, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (MA) and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (NY), voted against sending the bill to the full Senate for consideration. Senators agreed to vote on just two of the amendments we supported -- and defeated both. An amendment by Sen. Brian Schatz (HI) to curb transfers of military equipment to state and local police won a majority vote of 51-49, but did not meet the 60-vote threshold that was imposed as a condition for holding a vote. An amendment by Sen. Bernie Sanders (VT) to cut Pentagon spending by 10% and use the funds for urgent domestic needs lost 23-77.

Signs of Progress

Yet within this larger picture of setbacks are clear signs of progress. Forty percent of House Democrats and nearly 50% of Senate Democrats supported major cuts to military spending. Whereas only 73 representatives supported a 1% cut to the Pentagon budget in 2017, 93 representatives supported a 10% cut this year. And for the first time in decades, both House and Senate are voting on significant cuts to the military budget.

For the first time in decades, both House and Senate are voting on significant cuts to the military budget.

There are additional reasons to be hopeful. Both houses adopted provisions requiring the removal of Confederate names from military bases, prompting a veto threat from President Trump. The House bill curtailed use of the Insurrection Act, under which President Trump had threatened to deploy U.S. Armed Forces against civil protests. The House NDAA also contains numerous reporting requirements that provide needed transparency and accountability on issues ranging from nuclear weapons policy to atrocity prevention, Yemen, and the use of force. Finally, the fact that only two House Democrats – Elissa Slotkin (MI-08) and Henry Cuellar (TX-28) -- voted against the McAdams amendment demonstrates a clear Democratic consensus against the resumption of nuclear testing.

While the final bill that emerges from House-Senate conference is unlikely to contain much we will feel good about, some of the other bills now making their way through the House, such as the appropriations bills for the Departments of Defense and State, are more encouraging. Those bills won’t be wrapped up until after November elections, so we have plenty of time to continue our trek up that mountain together, one step at a time.

Diana Ohlbaum

  • Senior Strategist and Legislative Director for Foreign Policy

Diana Ohlbaum directs FCNL’s foreign policy lobbying team and leads an effort to replace the current U.S. foreign policy paradigm of military domination and national superiority with a more ethical and effective one based on cooperation and mutual respect.