Senate’s Secret Bill Will Cost More Than Half a Trillion, and You Should Know About It

Given the sky-high price tag, isn’t it fair to ask what we’re getting in the form of defense spending?

An F-35B in action. (Photos: Stocktrek Images/Getty Images)

Eliza Krigman is a Washington, D.C.- based journalist whose work has appeared in The New York Times and The Washington Post. She writes about politics, business, and lifestyle issues.

An F-35 fighter jet is a pricey little piece of aviation innovation, with each plane costing around $159 million, part of a $400 billion program run by the Pentagon—the most costly program in the history of the world. How many new ones do we need and why? It’s unclear. How many more of them will we buy in the future? Again, who knows.

But it might be worth noting that, by comparison, the cost to provide health care services to all veterans through the VA is estimated to be $69 billion to $85 billion.

The government is in the midst of deciding how to spend more than half a trillion dollars of taxpayer money, and much of it is happening in secret. Members of the Senate Armed Services Committee met Wednesday to debate and amend the National Defense Authorization Act. To the frustration of government transparency advocates, the meeting—or markup, as it is known in political parlance—is behind closed doors.

Defenders of the process argue that keeping it private is a matter of protecting classified information and national security interests. However, the House Armed Services Committee has proved that it’s possible to steward the bill through committee in a much more open and participatory way. All of the House markups of the bill are streamed online and archived for the public to see. To get the Senate to change its tune, the Project for Government Oversight, along with dozens of other groups, including Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington and Americans for Tax Reform, are lobbying the committee “to bring the NDAA into the light of day.” 

TakePart chatted recently with transparency advocate Angela Canterbury, director of public policy at POGO, to discuss why this is such a big deal. These excerpts from the interview have been edited for clarity.

TakePart: It’s fairly routine for Washington to spend a ton of money. Why is it important for us to know more about this bill?

Angela Canterbury: This is one of the few bills that Congress passes every year, and it authorizes more than $600 billion dollars in Pentagon spending. It includes many important wide-ranging policies. For the Senate to mark up any of the unclassified provisions of this bill in secret shuts the public out of how a huge chunk of taxes are spent and policies are made.

Last year, not even other members of the Senate were able to influence what eventually became law. There was not, in the end, an opportunity for senators who are not on the Armed Services Committee to amend the bill. There was a lot of frustration around that.

TakePart: What’s the justification for keeping it so secret?

Canterbury: When they vote to close the markup, the impetus is the fact that national security issues and classified information are discussed. On the House side, they don’t see any reason to close the markup. They are able to conduct the vast majority of their business on the bill completely in public. In our estimation, there is not a lot of legitimacy around the national security concerns when the House can do it transparently. In the end, it’s probably just because it’s harder to the do work when you have to more carefully segregate the classified discussions, as the House does.

TakePart: Is this an unsavory power grab by the senators who want to keep the process behind closed doors?

Canterbury: No. I think it’s just been a tradition for Chairman [Carl] Levin [D-Mich.]. Most people think the process yields good results. The committee members feel they are very well staffed. But now that Chairman Levin is going to retire, there is a real opportunity for the incoming leadership, whether its Democratic or Republican, to increase transparency and public participation in the NDAA and in the Senate in general.

TakePart: What are some examples of controversial programs that were funded by the NDAA and disclosed after the fact?

Canterbury: There was frustration on a handful of issues last year. There weren’t any votes taken on Iran or drones and other hot-button issues. The one issue that did get a public airing was the epidemic of sexual assault in the military. That was a real exception.

An open hearing was held on sexual assault—it was the only part of the NDAA that the full [Senate] committee debated in public. We got to see very thoughtful deliberations. It was an example of how it should work on other aspects of the bill.

TakePart: What issues are you most concerned about going forward?

Canterbury: The coalition we have assembled, which includes 56 organizations from across the political spectrum, have different perspectives. Some fiscally conservative groups are most concerned about the amount of money that’s being wasted on ineffective programs. Other members are really concerned with war spending in general. These are groups that care about peace and security and would like consideration for a faster drawdown of troops in Afghanistan, for instance.  

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