House, Senate agree on Defense bill adding paid leave for feds, US Space Force

The final agreement maintains the NDAA's decades-long reputation of must-pass legislation, but punts thorny border issues to the still-unsettled appropriations ...

Congressional negotiators have reached an agreement on the fiscal year 2020 National Defense Authorization Act, teeing up votes for later this week on a piece of must-pass legislation whose future had previously been in doubt for the first time in decades.

The bill largely sidesteps what had been the biggest holdup during negotiations that started several months ago: Whether or not to impose restraints on the president’s authority to use Defense funding for his proposed border wall.

According to a summary of the final agreement congressional committees sent to reporters Monday night, their conferees decided the contentious border issues should instead be dealt with as part of 2020 appropriations bills — another legislative process that has stalled for the last several months.

“This conference report is the product of months of hard-fought, but always civil and ultimately, productive negotiations,” the chairmen and ranking minority members of the House and Senate Armed Services Committees said in a joint statement. “We would like to thank all the conferees for their contributions and hard work. We look forward to ushering the conference report through the House and Senate as soon as possible and on to the President’s desk for his signature.

Overall, the sprawling policy bill would authorize $738 billion in Defense funding for the fiscal year that began Oct. 1, plus another $5.3 billion for emergency disaster recovery on military installations damaged by natural disasters in North Carolina, Florida, Nebraska, Louisiana, and California.

The legislation would also accede to President Donald Trump’s push to create a U.S. Space Force as a separate branch of the armed services. The new military service would reside within the Department of the Air Force, in much the same way the Marine Corps operates as a service in the Navy Department.

The Space Force would be led by a uniformed officer with the title of Chief of Space Operations. That general would become the eighth member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The rest of the Space Force’s personnel would come from existing Air Force billets “to minimize cost and bureaucracy,” according to the summary, but the bill would also create two new Senate-confirmed positions: An assistant secretary of the Air Force for space acquisition and integration, and an assistant secretary of Defense for space policy.

Meanwhile, the bill incorporates the Federal Employee Paid Leave Act, a policy priority for House Democrats that has so far failed to win approval as a standalone measure in the Senate. That provision would grant federal workers 12 weeks of paid time off after the birth or adoption of a child, or to handle family health emergencies.

“Including paid family leave is a victory for all workers because it will help push more employers in the right direction and ensure more workers get paid family leave,” Sen. Jack Reed, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Armed Services Committee said in a statement.  “Expanding access to paid family leave helps the health and economic well-being of individuals who have it and strengthens the ability of employers to retain their workers.”

On the acquisition front, the bill appeared to ratify policy changes the Defense Department has been signaling it wants to make in its procurement of software for the last several months. It would create separate “pathways” for software acquisition and press the department to compress its initial software development timelines to a year or less under a continuous delivery model long-embraced by the private sector.

And to speed DoD’s embrace of cloud computing, the bill also orders the department’s chief information officer and chief data officer to create policies to migrate the military’s applications to the cloud.

It also incorporates the Accelerating Defense Innovation Act, a proposal first advanced by Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-Texas), the ranking Republican on the House Armed Services Committee. That measure would let companies compete for Small Business Innovative Research (SBIR) contracts even when their ownership stakes are mostly made up of venture capital investments.

“Market forces support the best ideas. Rep. Thornberry is concerned that the most capable small business and best innovators are being barred from the SBIR program precisely because their technologies are attracting private sector support and domestic investment,” according to a summary distributed by House Armed Services Committee Republicans.

The legislation also tackles the ongoing controversy over substandard privatized housing on military bases. Lawmakers and military leaders have largely been on the same page over how to begin to address the problems, but officials on both sides of the Potomac had been hoping to handle them in law and in policy simultaneously.

Among a long list of reforms, the bill would create a tenant’s bill of rights for service members living in on-base housing, ban private housing operators from using nondisclosure agreements in their leases, and require DoD to set up new standardized assessments to monitor private on-base housing developments for health hazards like mold and lead.

The NDAA is one of the few remaining bills that still are considered “must-pass” legislation on a bipartisan and bicameral basis. Unlike most federal agencies, Congress has passed authorization bills for Defense in each of the last 58 years.

At one point earlier this year, Sen. James Inhofe, the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee had proposed a “skinny NDAA” to ensure a bill of some kind could pass by the end of the calendar year, partly because not doing so would imperil noncontroversial reauthorizations like special pays for troops serving in combat zones.

The final agreement includes language that would extend those pay hikes and bonuses, and authorizes a 3.1 percent pay raise for military members starting on Jan. 1 — the largest pay increase for uniformed service members in ten years.

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