How Bad is the 2021 National Defense Authorization Act?

Image Source: DOD Updater Private – CC BY-SA 4.0

Somehow, Congress couldn’t find the time last week to renew extended unemployment benefits or the federal moratorium on evictions. Congress had something more pressing to think about than 30 million unemployed Americans: the Pentagon budget. On July 21 and 23, the House of Representatives and the Senate approved their versions of the Pentagon’s annual spending bill, the National Defense Authorization Act. To paraphrase Douglas Adams’ comment about the universe, the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2021 is big. Really big. Weighing in at $740.5 billion, the NDAA for FY 2021 casts its Brobdingnagian shadow over the military budgets of the next eleven countries combined.

It didn’t need to be that big. Earlier in the week, the House and Senate rejected amendments to the NDAA which would have reduced next year’s Pentagon budget by 10%. A 10% cut would have made $74 billion available for responding to the coronavirus pandemic and other needs of people who aren’t generals.

The NDAA for Fiscal Year 2021 gives the Pentagon $2½ billion more than last year’s NDAA. This will surprise no one who has noticed that defense spending has increased every year under President Donald Trump, relentless fighter against “endless wars.” Senate Republicans are trying to sneak an additional $21 billion for the military into the latest coronavirus relief bill. Eleven billion dollars of that will go straight to defense contractors.

Gargantuan the 2021 NDAA undeniably is. At the same time, the $740.5 billion figure is misleadingly low. Richard Escow points out (Counterpunch, July 7, 2020) that each year’s NDAA excludes the intelligence budget, the Department of Homeland Security budget, and a healthy chunk of the Department of Energy budget devoted to nuclear weapons.

Antiwar Amendments Disappear Like Magic!

Its monstrous size is not the only troubling thing about the NDAA.

Last year’s House version of the NDAA included several much-needed progressive amendments, including several antiwar amendments, which were stripped in conference. This year, progressives are having an even tougher time getting antiwar amendments into the NDAA. Here’s how the NDAA addresses (or fails to address) some major world conflicts.


Since 2015, the US has helped a military coalition led by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates kill as many as 12,000 civilians in Yemen. The US has provided intelligence sharing, target spotting, arms sales, spare parts for coalition aircraft, and (until November 2018) in-flight refueling of coalition warplanes—all without the consent of Congress. Some lawmakers have been attempting to reassert Congress’ Constitutional prerogative as the sole branch of government with the power to take the US to war. On April 16, 2019, President Donald Trump vetoed an historic War Powers Resolution passed by Congress which would have forced the US either to end its assistance to the coalition or obtain authorization from Congress. Experts believe that without US assistance, the Saudi war effort would be crippled or impossible.

Representative Ro Khanna, Democrat of California, introduced an amendment to last year’s NDAA which would have cut off US funds to assist the Saudis, Emiratis, and their coalition partners. Khanna’s amendment made it into the House version of the NDAA for FY 2020, but was stripped in conference. This year, Khanna has introduced a similar amendment. Khanna’s amendment was approved by the House Armed Services Committee on July 1 and is included in the FY 2021 NDAA passed by the full House on July 23.[1]

Another amendment introduced by Representative Khanna and adopted by the House requires the administration to issue an annual report describing the logistical support, military equipment, military training, and services the US has provided to the Saudi-led coalition.[2]

The report will also describe the war’s impact on humanitarian assistance entering Yemen. Good. Maybe the report can explain why the US Agency for International Development (USAID) has decided to abandon Yemenis, including children, to die of starvation and disease. USAID cut $73 million in humanitarian aid for Yemen in March, affecting 80% of Yemen’s people. The US says that the move is necessary because Yemen’s Houthi rebels divert humanitarian assistance. Relief experts, however, say that that problem can be addressed without canceling the bulk of Yemen’s aid.

The cruelty of the US move is staggering. Scott Paul of Oxfam America writes that “Due to a funding shortfall exacerbated by USAID’s suspension, six million Yemenis, including three million children, will lose access to water, sanitation, and hygiene services.” Hassan El-Tayyab, a Middle East specialist at the Friends Committee on National Legislation, says that “Yemen needs $1 billion to make it through the end of the year.”

The coronavirus pandemic has struck an already malnourished and immunocompromised population. Saudi bombing has destroyed much of Yemen’s sanitary and medical facilities, in violation of international humanitarian law prohibiting the targeting of hospitals. The UN hesitates to deliver a full-throated condemnation of Saudi war crimes because it can’t risk provoking the Saudis into cutting off the pittance of aid they provide Yemen.


As of July 2, the US had 8,600 troops in Afghanistan. Trump has said that he wants to reduce that number. But in the case of America’s longest-running war, Congress—including Democrats—is making the belligerent Trump look like a Dove. On July 1, by a vote of 60-33, the Senate tabled an amendment to the NDAA from Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) which would have removed all US troops from Afghanistan and rescinded the 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force in Afghanistan.

The House has gone a step further. DefenseOne notes that the House Armed Services Committee “outright prohibited the use of funds to cut the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan below 8,000 unless the administration submits a series of counterterrorism certifications that are impossible for any nation to meet” (i.e., that US troop withdrawal would not strengthen the Afghan Taliban).


The president also wants to withdraw 9,500 of the 35,000 US troops currently stationed in Germany. However, the House Armed Services Committee adopted, 49-7, an amendment which prohibits the Trump Administration from reducing the number of troops in Germany unless the Pentagon certifies the troop reduction will not harm the security of the US or its allies—a condition impossible to meet. The amendment has been included in the House version of the NDAA.


Several pieces of legislation have been introduced in Congress to prohibit President Trump from launching a war with Iran without Congressional authorization. On January 3, 2020, Iranian Major General Qasem Soleimani was assassinated in a US drone strike. A War Powers Resolution on Iran passed shortly thereafter as tensions between the US and Iran looked like they would escalate to full out war. President Trump vetoed the resolution on May 6. The Senate was unable to muster the two-thirds supermajority necessary to override the president’s veto.

That resolution was unconnected to the NDAA. An amendment to the NDAA for Fiscal Year 2021 meant to block war with Iran absent Congress’ approval was introduced by Representative Jan Schakowsky (D-IL), but failed to make it into the House version of the bill.

Representative Barbara Lee (D-CA) has also introduced an amendment—not to the NDAA, but to the Department of Defense Appropriations Act 2021—meant to prevent war with Iran. This amendment (and two other amendments from Representative Lee which would rescind the 2001 and 2002 Authorizations for the Use of Military Force) has been adopted by the House Appropriations Committee. (Lee was the only member of Congress to vote against the 2001 AUMF. Her colleagues should have listened to her.)


There is one provision shared by the House and Senate versions of the NDAA which we have not touched on. It requires the renaming of US military bases named after Confederate military figures, of which there are an embarrassing number. President Trump has threatened to veto the NDAA if this provision is in the final bill. Someone should set President Trump’s mind at rest. We can give new names to our military bases. We can topple the statues of racists long dead. Unfortunately, racism in America isn’t going away anytime soon.


1) A Senate amendment cutting off funding to the Saudi-led coalition was introduced on June 30, 2020 by Senator Bernie Sanders, but was blocked from receiving a floor vote by Senate Armed Services Committee chairman James Inhofe (R-OK).

2) One of Khanna’s proposed amendments unfortunately did not make it out of the House Armed Services Committee. According to Mother Jones, the amendment “would have taken $1 billion from a fund for the next generation of intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM) and put it toward pandemic preparedness * * *.”

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Charles Pierson is a lawyer and a member of the Pittsburgh Anti-Drone Warfare Coalition. E-mail him at Chapierson@yahoo.com.

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