House passed its Defense authorization bill, but there’s a long way to go

Members of Congress are back at work on the Hill, and lots of activity centers on the National Defense Authorization bill, which has passed the House.

Fresh from their annual baseball game, members of Congress are back at work on the Hill. Lots of activity centers on the National Defense Authorization Bill, which has, for starters, passed the House. And, strangely, there’s been some movement on the slow-moving, but never-ending topic, surrounding a new FBI headquarters. For this week’s outlook, the Federal Drive with Tom Temin talked with WTOP Capitol Hill correspondent Mitchell Miller.

Interview Transcript: 

Tom Temin  Fresh from their annual baseball game, members of Congress are back at work on the Hill. Lots of activity centers on the National Defense Authorization Bill, which has passed the House, anyway, and, strangely, on the never-ending topic of a new FBI headquarters. This week’s outlook now from WTOP Capitol Hill correspondent, Mitchell Miller. And Mitchell, let’s start with the NDAA. Now that it has passed the full House, will that spur the Senate so they can get started on reconciliation soon?

Mitchell Miller  Yes, a lot of things really moving forward now on the defense bill and on the defense front. The NDAA passed in the House largely along party lines. It includes a 19.5% pay increase for the lowest military ranks. That is going to add billions of dollars into the budget. But overall, $895 billion, and this, of course, is one of the biggest bills that they will take up all year long. And what is interesting about this is there are a lot of similarities as to what happened last year in that Republicans have added a lot of amendments that are clearly going to be opposed in the democratically-controlled Senate. One of those was an amendment that was passed in connection with restricting payment for military officials to have any kind of abortion or reproductive activity. And so that one is among the things that is going to be pushed back on by Senate Democrats, no doubt. There are also a lot of other things in connection with this bill that were taken up. One of the amendments that was easily defeated was one from Georgia’s Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene that would have banned further military aid to Ukraine. So a lot of back and forth here in connection with the NDAA. But I have been in contact with Virginia Senator Tim Kaine, and he is pleased with a lot of the progress that they’re making on the Senate side. So, a lot of things moving forward on this.

Tom Temin  Well, hopefully, they’ll agree on how many bombers you know, and troops and things in the NDAA.

Mitchell Miller  There’s all these little ancillary things that have been added in. But I think on the biggest issues, as you allude to, the weaponry, the military equipment, I think they are making a great deal of progress.

Tom Temin  And that idea of the reproductive rights or abortion rights, whatever you want to call them, kind of mirrors what is happening with in vitro fertilization legislation for the Federal Employee Health Benefit plan. This is something Democrats wanted.

Mitchell Miller  Right. This is another big issue that we’re in the middle of an election year, obviously, and Senate Democrats tried last week to get enough votes to essentially have a national right to IVF in connection with this legislation. And the way it affects federal workers is that it would actually expand the coverage of fertility treatments for the Federal Employees Health Benefits plan. This was included in legislation that also includes some other provisions. But ultimately, Democrats did not get the 60 votes that they needed. This was probably pretty likely, even Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer knew that this was probably not going to pass. Interestingly, OPM Office of Personnel Management, did increase the federal requirements for IVF treatments for this current plan year, but the legislation that was proposed last week would have gone beyond that. However, that has not moved forward. And it does not look like it’s going to anytime soon.

Tom Temin  We’re speaking with Mitchell Miller, WTOP Capitol Hill correspondent. And the issue that will not die is the FBI headquarters. And, golly, what’s the latest there now? Whether they’re ever gonna move?

Mitchell Miller  Well, you know, it’s interesting, because I was on a call with Virginia Senator Mark Warner in connection with this, and he was asked about what is happening in the House. And basically, the House Republicans have proposed pulling more than $3 billion that would go toward the early development of this new FBI headquarters in Greenbelt. And he clearly indicated he is frustrated. He said that, you know, the fact that the building in Washington on Pennsylvania Avenue is literally falling apart with netting at the top to catch pieces of concrete, really frustrates him. And of course, he’s even more frustrated by the fact that Virginia lost out to Maryland, but he does want something to happen to get moving. So, the appropriations process is kind of holding things up at the moment for the FBI building. At some point, this will get resolved, because a lot of Democrats obviously are opposing this plan. But all of this is delaying what has already been a much delayed process, as you know. Even if everything moves forward as fast as possible right now, the building would actually not begin for another five years. And it wouldn’t be that federal employees with the FBI would not be actually in that space until 2036. And I think right now, actually, that may be optimistic, but we’ll see what happens as this legislation sausage making grinds forward.

Tom Temin  Yeah, you really marvel at the inflation, because $3 billion just for kind of preparatory work, that’s not the building itself. As opposed to something like I think it was 60 million for the old headquarters they abandoned, you know, back in the 70s.

Mitchell Miller  Right, yeah. I think it’s pretty safe to say this cost is just going to keep going up and up and up. But on the bright side, they did, after more than a decade of battling over where to actually build the headquarters, it is eventually going to move forward.

Tom Temin  Too bad they tore down the Cap Center.

Mitchell Miller  That’s right. They could have repurposed that, maybe.

Tom Temin  With a curvy roof. And congressional pay raise, this is something that’s been kind of a third rail for Congress. But now some members are talking about, well, maybe they should be paid a little more.

Mitchell Miller  Right. There was a proposal last week within the House Appropriations Committee that’s repeatedly come up. Some people that have been in Congress longer as well as some newer members of Congress are actually on the same page on this. Congressman Steny Hoyer is among those who has said there should be at least a cost of living increase for members of Congress, because they have to have two homes generally, here in the Washington area and their home district. The cost of living obviously is going up. But of course, this is kind of the third rail for a lot of lawmakers too, because they know that when a member of Congress is making $174,000, that there’s not a lot of sympathy from average Americans related to those costs. But the pay raise did not move forward in the House Appropriations Committee last week. So once again, they will stay at that level as they have since 2009. By the way, if there had been general cost of living increases since 2009, the average member of Congress would be making close to $240,000 right now, but again, this is on hold and not surprising, I don’t think, since this is, as we mentioned earlier, an election year.

Tom Temin  And we should note too, that the pay for politically appointed members of the executive branch, I don’t think those salaries have risen either in the same period.

Mitchell Miller  No, they’ve all been holding pretty firmly. And that’s really an issue that a lot of the people that are proposing these increases also point out that if you’re going to get people in public service, you’re going to have to eventually raise the pay. Now there is another controversial element to all of this, that Congress kind of quietly, within the last year or two, approved a provision that allows for lawmakers to essentially add to their expenses without having actual receipts. And this is something that was added in because, again, because they say that there are added costs with housing and paying for meals, etc. And that has actually percolated and caused some controversy for lawmakers. Because with no receipts, of course, it’s unclear exactly how much extra money they’re getting. It usually, on the higher end, has been between $25,000 and $30,000. But I have a feeling that will be coming under some more scrutiny too.

Tom Temin  And just a brief word on the baseball game, because it does go for a good cause, even if it seems to be played by people that aren’t liked very much. But as the one of the broadcasters there and we helped produce that here at Federal News Network, how’d it go money wise?

Mitchell Miller  It was really a great event, once again. The congressional baseball game has been raising money for local charities as you know, for many years and they set a record, $2.2 million brought in for charity, which is just absolutely fabulous. It’s just been steadily going up every year that George Wallace and WTOP and I have been doing this from you know, closer to one and a half million several years ago. And so that participation, again, it remains strong. The Republican team, by the way, remains the stronger of the two parties on the baseball diamond anyway. They won pretty handily, 31 to 11. But it was a great event as usual. 25,000 plus people came out and the fact that they’re raising this kind of money, it’s just nice to see a rare bipartisan event and happening right near Capitol Hill.

Tom Temin  Even if they do thump each other with fast balls. Mitchell Miller is Capitol Hill correspondent for WTOP. Thanks so much.

Mitchell Miller  You bet.

Tom Temin  We’ll post this interview at Hear the Federal Drive on demand, subscribe wherever you get your podcasts.

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