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The Villages
Sunday, April 14, 2024

Too often in Congress, bills are written by a small group of insiders

U.S. Rep. Rich Nugent
U.S. Rep. Rich Nugent

In the midst of an extraordinarily unproductive time in Washington, one vital piece of legislation is still being thoughtfully crafted, carefully deliberated, and overwhelmingly approved.  That bill, my friends, is the annual National Defense Authorization Act.  Any longtime readers of this newsletter will know how this process works, but for the sake of any new readers, I’ll give you the basic overview.

Most committees in Congress approve dozens of bills over the course of the year.  Some are partisan, some are unanimous.  Some are single page and some are massive.  The House Armed Services Committee (which I am a very proud member of) only passes one single bill a year – the “NDAA”.

A year’s worth of work goes into it.  We pour over every line item in the military’s budget.  We consider policy changes, resource allocation, new programs, old programs, regional issues, global issues.  We break everything down into subcommittees so we can specialize in various aspects of defense – personnel matters, sea power, emerging threats, nuclear deterrence, and so forth.

By and large, it works.  The committee has a long and distinguished record of consensus building and genuine cooperation.  We’ve passed our bill with bipartisan support and had it signed into law 54 years in a row.  There is nothing comparable anywhere else in Congress.

Politics largely stops when it comes to the defense of this nation and that’s exactly as it should be.  Of course there are some cheap shot amendments along the way and always a few gotcha votes, but compared to the rest of what goes on in Washington, it’s nothing short of a miracle each and every year.

On Wednesday morning at 10:00 a.m., we began the marathon markup of the 794 page bill.  We kept right on going, page by page, issue by issue until 2:45 am Thursday morning.  We stopped only for votes on the House floor.

By the time the committee was done, having considered over three hundred separate amendments whittled down from 2,000 plus initial proposals, we voted on the bill as a whole and sent it to the full House for consideration by a vote of 60-2.

It may not seem it, but when you consider how divisive politics tends to get, how scarce the resources are, how big the budget is, how different the philosophies tend to be, to get that many people on the same page is pretty extraordinary.  By and large, as I reflect on what I’ve seen during my time in Congress, I think it’s a pretty good model for how things should work.

We spend an entire year slowly and carefully moving through the weeds.  When we hit a snag, we either work it out or we table it and revisit later.  We build consensus one person at a time and one issue at a time.  Everybody gets to have their voice heard and their suggestions considered.  In many cases, including some policy provisions of my own, you spend years building that consensus.   The first year you take a small step, perhaps asking the DOD to conduct a study on the feasibility of something.  The next year, you ask some questions in committee hearings start to raise awareness and general knowledge.  You spot the flaws and refine your own idea.  The next year, having earned some support, you establish a pilot program and spend the year watching carefully to see how it goes.  You make some tweaks, you talk to your colleagues, you talk to DOD and you see where things stand.   Sometimes the support is there to move forward, sometimes you realize what you set out to do just isn’t feasible.  Either way, because the process is so deliberate and careful, you tend to arrive at the correct conclusion and pretty much everybody is in agreement.

Too often in Congress, bills are written by a small group of insiders and the text is released at the very last minute.  The bill then gets promptly rammed through without much input and with very little effort made to reach a real point of agreement.  Nobody likes being on the receiving end of that.  It’s basic human nature.

In addition, the more eyes you have on something, the more likely it is that you’ll spot the weaknesses.  When you allow your critics to weigh in, instead of limiting input to a bunch of yes men, you’re going to end up with a better work product.  It’s as simple as that.

The Armed Services Committee has a long history of working this way and that’s a huge part of the reason why it has continued to be successful – even in the midst of highly partisan spats over the wars we may be fighting or the commander in chief overseeing them.

Congress as a whole used to have that kind of collegial respect.  We may fight like hell over just about everything (that’s what the Founders intended), but there was at least a real effort to build some trust and respect.  I don’t think anybody in Washington feels that’s the case now.  People are either intractable or left out of the process.  They hate each other on TV and in real life.  There is no sense of greater purpose for a lot of people.  It’s all about winning the news cycle in an effort to win the election cycle.  And while it would be unrealistic to think politicians will ever ignore such basic realities, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to expect some actual results along the way.

Congressman Rich Nugent represents The Villages in the U.S. House of Representatives

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