President Obama is playing politics with national defense, and in the process he is taking down the military’s welfare. In an act of partisan gamesmanship, the president on Thursday vetoed the National Defense Authorization Act, a bill that a bipartisan majority of Congress passed and that delivers the resources needed by troops to defend the nation.
For more than 50 years, Congress has fulfilled its highest constitutional duty to provide for the common defense by passing the National Defense Authorization Act, and year after year the NDAA has enjoyed broad, bipartisan support. Before Thursday, such bills had been vetoed by only four past presidents—in 1978, 1988, 1995 and 2007. In each case, the president objected to an actual provision in the bill, and each time Congress’s Armed Services committees were able to find a compromise that earned the presidential signature.
In vetoing this legislation, President Obama has made history, but for all the wrong reasons. He has become the first commander in chief willing to sacrifice national security by vetoing a bill that authorizes pay, benefits and training for U.S. troops, simply because he seeks leverage to pursue his domestic political agenda.
The president didn’t veto the bill because of any of its policies, which make some of the most significant reforms to the Pentagon in more than 30 years, while giving troops the vital capabilities necessary to combat today’s mounting threats.
Instead, President Obama’s veto was about broader spending issues that have absolutely nothing to do with defense. By vowing recently that he “will not fix defense without fixing nondefense spending,” the president is holding the military hostage to increase funding for Washington bureaucracies like the Environmental Protection Agency and the Internal Revenue Service.
Let’s be clear: This bill authorizes every dollar of the $612 billion that President Obama requested for national defense. His objection is over an obscure mechanism using the Overseas Contingency Operations, or OCO account, to lift defense spending above the harmful caps imposed by the Budget Control Act of 2011. If there is more money for U.S. troops, he demands more money for the EPA. It’s that simple.
But the president’s complaint misses a crucial point: The defense authorization bill cannot solve the spending fight happening in Washington, and it can’t stop budget sequestration. Believe us, if the NDAA were capable of ending sequestration and stopping the dangerous trend of cutting an estimated $1 trillion over 10 years with no military rationale whatsoever, we would have done everything in our power to make it happen.
Only a comprehensive agreement between the White House and Congress can stop budget sequestration, and the White House is unwilling to come to the table. The NDAA is a policy bill that doesn’t spend a dime. Congress can only adjust spending through the appropriations process—not a defense policy bill.
In vetoing this bill, the president imposes more harm and uncertainty on the military at a time when America faces dangerous and complex threats from around the world. He has prevented critical policies from taking effect that would immediately improve the lives of service members and military families while addressing needs of wounded, ill or injured service members. For example, President Obama has rejected measures that open service members’ access to medical care; enhance protections for military sexual-assault victims; extend retirement benefits to more than 80% of service members; make significant, long-overdue reforms to the defense acquisition system; and authorize hundreds of other measures that are critical to national security.
Perhaps most disturbingly, the president’s veto has sent a message to America’s enemies and allies alike that he is more concerned about funding broken Washington bureaucracies than he is about maintaining the nation’s distinction for being defended by the world’s greatest fighting force.
That is the wrong message to send when America faces an array of crises that demand a strong national defense, including war in Afghanistan, China’s illegal activities in the South China Sea, Islamic State’s terrorist reign across Iraq and Syria, Bashar Assad’s bombing campaign—now backed by Russia and Iran—against his own people in Syria, Vladimir Putin’s annexation of Crimea and dismemberment of Ukraine, and Iran’s malign activities propping up terrorist proxies destabilizing the Middle East.
These and other threats make it clear that the U.S. faces more national-security threats than at any time since the end of World War II. It is reckless, cynical and downright dangerous for the president to veto the NDAA, denying the American military the authorizations it desperately needs.
We have spoken personally with many of the men and women, here and abroad, who are training to fight terrorists in Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere. They couldn’t care less which governmental spending account their support comes from. They simply want to know that their missions are resourced, their families are taken care of, and their country is behind them.
President Obama is picking the wrong fight when it comes to the defense budget, and he is using Americans who are willing to serve in harm’s way as bargaining chips in a battle he cannot win. On behalf of these men and women in the nation’s military, we urge Congress to do what the president did not: Put the best interests of U.S. troops and national security ahead of politics—and override the veto.
Mr. McCain, a Republican, is a U.S. senator from Arizona. Mr. Thornberry, a Republican, is a U.S. representative from Texas.