House committee moves $733 billion closer to approval

The House Armed Services Committee passed the 2020 National Defense Authorization Act, pushing the bill along after a nearly day long debate.

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The House Armed Services Committee passed its defense authorization bill mostly along party lines. authorizing a Defense Department budget of $733 billion with top Republicans voting against it.

The committee debated into the early morning hours of June 13, pushing the 20-hour mark before voting on the contentious topline budget amendment at sunrise. That amendment from HASC ranking member Mac Thornberry (R-Texas) sought to bump the authorization by another $17 billion, which would have included additional funding for 5G and artificial intelligence research. It was defeated 27-30.

Many committee Republicans, including Thornberry, voted against referring the bill to the full House. The final committee vote was 33 to 24.

“Everybody, without exception, wants to get to yes on the House floor,” he told reporters following the vote. “I think we’ll have to regroup and analyze...Get ready for another day.”

The amendment set out to match the Senate-approved $750 billion authorization bill that passed in May. But Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.), who chairs the House committee, maintained that anything more than the planned-out and justified $733 billion would likely lead to waste.

Smith said granting the increase for the 2020 National Defense Authorization Act would be “irresponsible.” Even at $733 billion, the bill would be the largest defense budget the HASC has ever authorized, he said during the marathon markup session.

“The Pentagon still can’t perform an audit. They can’t tell you what they spent money on last year. They can’t tell you how many buildings they have,” the chairman said. “There is always more money that can be spent at the Pentagon.”

Thornberry maintained the additional monies were would be well targeted

Tech provisions glide through

Debate (and votes) often fell along party lines and grew more quarrelsome as night turned to morning. The committee debated for hours on nuclear power provisions, emergency contraception, sexual assault, the detention facilities at Guantanamo Bay and a Space Corps (not Force) that was added via an amendment.

Tech provisions sailed through the markup with little to no contestation, however. Artificial intelligence, 5G, robotics, software development and cybersecurity (both operations and training) all are addressed in the approved bill.

An amendment from Rep. Matt Gaetz’s (R-Fla.) looks to spread the success of the Air Force’s prized software factory, Kessel Run, across the service. Tucked in one of the early amendment passages, the measure calls for DOD to lay out a plan for how Kessel Run can be scaled across the Air Force's programs of record. The program has drawn attention for quickly developing and fielding software capabilities.

DOD would have to brief the committee by Sept. 1 on the Kessel Run program and how the commercial capabilities it has developed can be wed with other Air Force acquisition programs.

That briefing would include Kessel Run’s current priorities and compliance with current acquisition authorities, as well as how the technologies Kessel Run creates can be transitioned to established programs of record.

Adopted amendments to the mark included using AI-run robotics in chemical, biological, radiological or nuclear environments, and additional personnel management authorities for the Joint AI Center.

The bill adds a directive for assessing the cybersecurity posture of DOD entities involved in the development, storage, processing, and transmission of data related to biothreats and pathogens. It also requires DOD to submit a quadrennial cyber posture review and to “assess the value of establishing a Cyber Force as a separate uniformed service,” according to amendment text.

Supply chain security has been a major theme with the markups, and new amendments continued that trend. According to the bill text, DOD would have to report on the strategic and operational consequences of using Huawei or ZTE in 5G wireless networks and provide a list of Russian and Chinese academic institutions with predilection for intellectual property theft, cyber espionage, improper technology transfers, or take direction from armed forces or intelligence agencies.

For science and tech personnel, the bill establishes a DOD fellowship program for national security professionals with STEM degrees and requires a report on how expanding the hacking for defense program to 25 universities by fiscal 2022 can be sustained.