Washington – The U.S. House on Tuesday approved a massive defense bill that would send billions of dollars to Connecticut defense contractors and also make significant changes to Pentagon policy, including a requirement the military remove Confederate names from military bases.
Approved on a bipartisan, 295-125 vote, the $740 billion National Defense Authorization bill would authorize $4 billion to continue construction on the new Columbia-class submarine, the largest and most expensive submarine Electric Boat has ever built.
It also authorizes $6.8 billion for the Virginia-class submarine program, an increase of $2.6 billion over the Pentagon’s budget request that would keep the two-a-year pace of funding for that program. The Navy had cut production of Virginia-class subs to one in 2021 to ensure there’s capacity at Electric Boat and its partner, Newport News Shipbuilding, to simultaneously build both the Columbia-class and Virginia-class subs.
The NDAA would also approve spending $799 million for the procurement of 79 F-35s whose engines are built by Pratt & Whitney and nearly $1 billion for 60 Sikorsky-made UH-60 Blackhawk helicopters.
Connecticut benefits more than most other states from defense spending, which has been on an increase for the last several years, but may face a slowdown in the near future as the nation struggles with huge budget deficits as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.
An analysis of military spending in 2018 released this week by the Pew Charitable Trust shows that Connecticut is the top state in the nation when it comes to defense contracts, and was sixth in the nation when it came to all Pentagon spending, including salaries and retirement benefits.
The analysis showed that military spending varied widely among the states, from $565 per person in Oregon to $7,455 per person in Virginia. Connecticut’s per-capita spending was $4,560 per person in 2018, the Pew analysis said.
Besides setting new records in defense spending, a final defense bill negotiated by the House and Senate may include new restrictions on a program that gives local police departments surplus military equipment.
Connecticut’s police departments have received more than $20 million worth of donated military hardware, which they say bolsters their ability to fight crime, carry out dangerous rescue missions and protect their officers. But critics say the program “militarizes” the police and encourages abuse.
“I know in the past it had a big appeal in small towns,” said Rep. Joe Courtney, D-2nd District, of the surplus equipment program. “But it really spun out of control. It’s not the direction we need to go.”
The bill would also establish a chief diversity officer in each of the military services, including the Coast Guard.
The bill would also create a special investigator to review racial disparities in the Military Justice System and investigate white supremacist activities among military personnel. It would also require military chiefs to submit an annual report on the gender and race of each officer who was recommended for a promotion.
Courtney, a senior member of the House Armed Services Committee, said there’s great diversity in the lower ranks of the military, “but when you get to the higher levels, it’s not diverse.”
Courtney also lauded provisions in the bill aimed at combating sexual harassment in the armed services, including the creation of a pilot program that would take harassment complaints out of the chain of command and put them in the hands of a special prosecutor.
Approval of the legislation sets up negotiations between the House and Senate for a final version of the annual defense bill.
The Senate began debate on its version of the NDAA this week and is expected to vote on the legisltion soon.
As it stands, the Senate NDAA would authorize more spending on F-35s and Blackhawk helicopters than the House’s NDAA. It would also authorize the purchase of nine CH53K “King Stallion” helicopters, built by Sikorsky for the Marines. The House bill authorized only six heavy lift ‘copters.’
But, unlike the House bill, the Senate NDAA would not approve spending on an additional Virginia-class submarine.
Differences between the bills must be negotiated by select members of the House and Senate Armed Services who will craft a final bill.
“When the Senate looks at the cadence of our construction, they are going to go with our recommendation,” said Courtney of the differences over the Virginia-class program.
Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said he’s also confident a final bill will authorize construction of the additional submarine.
“I am very hopeful because clearly there is a need for Virginia-class subs,” he said. “And the Navy strongly wants it.”
There are also policy differences between the bills that must be worked out.
The Senate version of the NDAA gives the Pentagon three years to rename bases that honor Confederate military officers. The House measure would force the military to take action to change the names of those bases within a year. Whatever is agreed to by the House and Senate could lead to a showdown with President Donald Trump, who has vowed to veto the legislation if it strips Confederate names from military bases.
And the Senate’s NDAA would restrict donations of some military equipment to police departments, and require those that receive that equipment to undergo de-escalation training. Under the Senate’s defense bill, no longer would local police departments receive donations of grenades, weaponized tracked combat vehicles and weaponized drones from the Pentagon.
The House NDAA has no restrictions on the military equipment program. The House instead voted to end the program in a separate policing bill.
An earlier version of this story said the House defense bill would have ended a Pentagon program that donates military equipment to police departments. The program would be eliminated in a separate policing bill.