Mr./Madam President, the bill before us today at once represents the best of our nation, and some of the worst of Washington.
On the one hand, the primary purpose of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) represents the best of America. In past years, it has been one of the few consistently bipartisan pieces of legislation considered by the Senate, and it has usually been afforded lengthy debate and an open and transparent amendment process on the floor.
That’s because it is one of the most important and solemn duties of the Congress to provide for the men and women who protect our nation.
The United States of America has the best armed services the world has ever seen... not just because of what they do, but because of who they are: honest, courageous, selfless patriots who love our country and have dedicated themselves to protecting us and defending our way of life.
Of all the bills that come before Congress, the NDAA deserves to be treated with the kind of integrity and respect with which our military personnel approach their jobs every day.
And yet the process that has unfolded this year has fallen far short of the standard they set for us:
Congress has waited until the last minute to conduct our most important business, using the holidays to fabricate a false sense of urgency; the Senate Majority Leader has refused to allow an open and transparent debate, shutting down our ability to offer amendments on the Senate floor; and finally, only a privileged few members of Congress had a hand in drafting this bill, which was cobbled together with numerous extraneous provisions behind closed doors.
What used to be an exception to the typical legislative sausage making, has been subsumed by the status quo. And it’s exactly what is wrong with Washington today.
Mr./Madam President, each one of us, as members of Congress, is here for just one reason: we were elected to represent and serve the American people.
Unfortunately, the twisted, tainted process that has produced this bill prevents all of us from carrying out this responsibility... and it threatens our obligation to do what is right for our men and women in uniform.
As the title suggests, the National Defense Authorization Act is supposed to be a relatively straightforward, largely noncontroversial bill. It is the primary legislative instrument for Congress to exercise its constitutional power – granted in Article I, Section 8 – to “provide for the common Defence.”
But that’s not what we’re voting on today.
This bill – the NDAA for fiscal year 2015 – is a legislative hodgepodge that includes those straightforward, noncontroversial items that almost all of us support, but also numerous other provisions that are unrelated to national defense.
Most egregiously, the drafters secretly added 68 unrelated bills pertaining to the use of federal lands – the so-called “lands package” – into this bill without any opportunity for debate or a vote.
None of these bills were included in the version of the NDAA that the Senate Armed Services Committee debated and voted on in May of this year... because, had any member tried to include them in the normal process, they clearly would have been ruled out of the committee’s jurisdiction.
Another outlier in this legislative grab bag is a provision reauthorizing a Defense Department program to train and equip “moderate” Syrian rebels for the next two years.
Now, we have testimony from some of America’s top military leaders warning us of the immense risks involved with this program. They have told us that there is no way to guarantee that these efforts won’t backfire, further embroiling the United States military in volatile and unpredictable Middle East conflicts.
Yet here we are, forced to reauthorize this risky program in order to provide for our troops and the Defense Department.
The authority for this program was first added to the NDAA in the closed committee mark-up process in May, and then later attached to the must-pass spending bill in the House in September, giving Senators the “all-or-nothing” choice of either approving this controversial program or voting against all other government spending.
This is not how Congress is supposed to work. Congress is supposed to evaluate, debate, and amend individual pieces of legislation on their own merits – with enough time to inform and educate the American people about what their representatives are doing.
Instead, it’s politics as usual in Washington.
Rather than an open, transparent, and inclusive process, several extraneous – sometimes controversial – provisions were added to the NDAA at the last minute by a select few operating behind closed doors.
And, as we’ve come to expect from the outgoing majority in the Senate, once the bill appears from behind those closed doors, the American people are denied any real debate or even a chance to read – let alone amend – the bill.
This is a shame, because there are good, bipartisan amendments out there, like the Due Process Guarantee Act – an amendment that Senator Feinstein and I attempted to offer for the Senate’s consideration – which would improve the 2015 NDAA by prohibiting the indefinite detention of U.S. persons.
Even though the Due Process Guarantee Act received 67 votes of support in the last Congress, it continues to be blocked by the privileged few who cobbled together this bill.
Now, at the eleventh hour, we’re told that we have to vote for everything in this legislative medley or vote for none of it.
After deliberately allowing time to expire up to the final moments before the holidays, the Senate Majority Leader has told the American people that the only way to support our soldiers is to support a distorted legislative process and controversial items that have never been debated in public.
Many of my colleagues have said that this is a “must-pass” bill.
I would put it slightly differently. I would say: we must pass legislation – without political gimmicks or procedural games – that enables the men and women serving in our Defense Department to fulfill their missions. We absolutely must pay our soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines, and authorize our national defense budget.
As a matter of constitutional responsibility, national security, and moral duty, we must do these things.
But not like this.
Mr./Madam President, I fear that we in the Senate have become far too comfortable with the idea that on the most important issues – like paying our troops, funding our defense department, and sending our sons and daughters halfway around the world into harm’s way – it’s okay if we bend the rules to their breaking point. And we allow our colleagues to hijack funding for our men and women in uniform to pass their unrelated, political priorities.
There’s no doubt that it’s easier this way – easier for Senators. It’s easier to outsource our representative duties to a select few and avoid debate on the tough topics.
But that doesn’t make it right.
And, as our courageous service-members and their families know, easier is rarely best.
The rules governing how a bill becomes a law are not optional and they are not arbitrary.
They exist for a good reason: to ensure that the will of the American people is heard – and followed. If we fail to adhere to the rules, then we fail in the duties we were elected to carry out... and we fail to be a truly representative democracy.
But these rules are not self-enforcing. Writing them down doesn’t make them so. Unless we hold them true in our hearts, in our minds, and in our actions, they will be nothing more than words on paper – mere “parchment barriers,” as James Madison put it.
If we as an institution can accept a legislative process driven by backroom deals, rather than fair and inclusive debate, when we’re dealing with the most important issues, then when are we ever going to do things the right way?
We can do better. The American people – and especially those serving in uniform – deserve better. And as we saw in the recent elections, the American people demand that we do better.
I think we can and we must.