Defense Bill To Be Rammed Through Without Debate or Amendment

Democracy was nice while it lasted.


Yesterday, Doug Mataconis asked, “Who Was The First ‘Democratically Elected’ President Of The United States?” highlighting the fact that major social groups who can currently vote were excluded from the franchise until fairly recently.

The ongoing crisis is Congress—mostly, but by no means entirely, caused by recalcitrant Republicans—has me wondering how much democracy we have in what is supposed to be our most representative branch of government. For years, large minorities in the Senate have thwarted the will of the elected majority on a more and more frequent basis. Things came to a head last month when the long threatened nuclear option was invoked, suspending debating rights on judicial confirmation votes. (Which, to be clear, I’ve long supported.)

Now, to pass a simple defense authorization bill, Congressional leaders are bypassing debate altogether, trying to ram through legislation ahead of Friday’s recess without the possibility of amendment.

National Journal (“GOP Divide Could Stall Defense Bill“):

Leaders of the Senate and House Armed Services committees have struck a bipartisan deal in which both chambers pass identical legislation—the House this week before adjourning and the Senate the next. The plan would block members of either body from making amendments to the measure, an expediency the plan’s proponents say is necessary due to the tight timing.

“The choices are not, ‘Do you want to have an NDAA bill the way we are having it here, or do you want to have one the normal way it takes place?’ because that is not possible anymore,” Senate Armed Services ranking member James Inhofe, R-Okla., said in a press conference announcing the Armed Services leaders’ deal Monday.

“There is not the time to go through a process where you are going to have amendments,” Inhofe said. “That is behind us.”

But Inhofe acknowledged he did not have assurances that Republican leadership will support the deal and agree to pass the bill without amendments in the Senate.

“I can’t tell you we have a commitment on the Republican side for this,” Inhofe said. “We have a lot more support than we would have had, or than we did have during consideration of the bill.”

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s office said it had not seen the details Monday evening. Senate Armed Services Chairman Carl Levin, D-Mich., reiterated remarks Majority Leader Harry Reid made on the floor Monday that Democrats hope the House will send over the defense bill this week.

Military Times (“Compromise reached on 2014 defense bill“):

The result of negotiations involving the so-called “Big Four” on defense, the chairmen and ranking minority party members of the House and Senate armed services committees, the bill represents the only chance for a National Defense Authorization Act for 2014 to pass Congress before Jan. 1, the leaders said.

“The four of us have reached agreement on a bill that we hope will be passed by the House before it recesses this Friday,” said Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., the Senate Armed Services Committee chairman. “It is not the preferred course. It just happens to be the only course.”


Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, is urging passage. A Dec. 9 letter from Dempsey to congressional leaders pleads for the bill to pass because of a number of expiring programs, including counterdrug and counterterrorism activities, new starts of weapons programs and multiyear procurement programs and programs supporting military operations in Afghanistan.

Calling the bill “critical to the nation’s defense” and to keeping faith with service members and defense civilians, Dempsey said not passing the bill before January “adds yet more uncertainty to the force and further complicates the duty of our commanders who face shifting global threats.

“I also fear that delay may put the entire bill at risk, protracting this uncertainty and impacting our global influence,” Dempsey said.

Congress is in this fix over passage of the defense policy bill because the Senate was unable before Thanksgiving to find a way to move a bill that was weighted down with more than 500 pending amendments.

Most of the amendments, per usual, are only tangentially related to defense funding at all. Others are quite controversial and would derail passage.

This may indeed be “the only way” to get a bill passed. But it’s not the American way.

FILED UNDER: Congress, Democracy, Military Affairs, , , , , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. I am not sure that this is a deficit of democracy, per se, insofar as I am not sure that amendment options are requisite to say that a bill has passed the legislature in a democratic fashion. It is legitimate for a deal to be cut by party leaders and then offered up for a vote.

    A major problem is that the members of the legislature don’t appear to take legislating seriously because too many of their constituents seem to like it that way (despite national dissatisfaction with the Congress). It is, in my opinion, the disjuncture between national sentiment and the sentiment captured by our single member districts that is at the root of much of the problem.

  2. al-Ameda says:

    There is not the time to go through a process where you are going to have amendments,” Inhofe said. “That is behind us.”

    Unfortunately Senator Inhofe is right, the current Republican delegation, especially in the House, and to a lesser degree in the Senate, is incapable of normal or traditional brokering when it comes to legislation. I suspect if they went through a ‘normal’ process we’d see amendments related to defunding ACA.

    It’s better to just put something together and have the straight up-or-down vote.

  3. KM says:

    Freedom is the option and ability to do something, not the actual accomplishment of it.

    The fact that we can have amendments doesn’t mean we always have to. Quite frankly, the amendment process get horribly abused to warp legislation into Frankenstein-ish monstrosities. You shouldn’t have to bribe Congressmen to do their job with pork. Pass the damn bill on its own merits and amend as needed to improve. “Rammed through” gets used when the guy who wanted to weedle some dough out of the deal is cut out and wants to cry about it.

  4. C. Clavin says:

    Republicans have created the atmosphere where this is the only way to pass anything.
    Absent this we would see a bunch of pointless amendments de-funding and repealing the ACA.
    The biggest question is; why do you keep supporting this party?

  5. gVOR08 says:

    The normal process revolves around a lot of horse trading. You get something, I get something. But apparently Republicans have decided there’s nothing they need. Can someone explain to me why the lobbying industry isn’t raising holy hell? The lobbyists and their clients can’t be getting much cheddar out of this do nothing congress. Or are they raising hell, but can’t get to the twenty of so committed Tea Party nihilists?

  6. 11B40 says:


    As Christmas approaches, it’s almost like the Ghost of Obamacare Past.

    And your sub-head, is that a quote from President Obama ???

  7. wr says:

    I am so tired of a notion that a bill is “rammed through” if it passes despite opposition from a minority. Every bill eventually passes this way, except perhaps for those devoted to naming post offices after puppies. This is nothing but an attempt to deligitimize the democratic process and undercut any law the speaker dislikes — for (obvious) example, the ACA passed the House and the Senate under the rules established by both houses. But because the Republicans lost the vote — because they didn’t win enough elections — we keep hearing that the law isn’t legitimate because the Democrats “rammed it through.”

    I suspect there’s much in this defense bill I will despise, and wish it were a substantially different bill going through. But I don’t have enough people in congress who share my beliefs, so that won’t happen — which doesn’t mean the bill is illegitimate. Just as it doesn’t mean the bill isn’t valid because some yahoo doesn’t get to attach language banning abortion or declaring that billionaires don’t have to pay taxes.

  8. Scott says:

    I’m curious. Haven’t heard of this one before. How does this relate to the Ryan-Murray potential plans. Both seem to what to get rid of the mutual assured destruction of the sequester. If the NDAA passes, that would presumable get rid of the threat of sequester for the defense side (50% of the sequester cuts) Where does that leave the other 50%? Can’t believe the Demos would go for that deal.

  9. nitpicker says:

    @11B40: I kept trying to write something to explain how you’re wrong, but in three short sentences, you’ve proven that you’re so far off track, it would take a major investment of time and energy just to explain you to a place where we could begin talking about this issue meaningfully. Kudos on being concise in your silliness, though.

  10. James Joyner says:

    @wr: I don’t have a strong opinion on any of the omitted amendments other than the Gillibrand reform to the UCMJ, which I oppose. My opposition is to the process here, not outcomes. Massive appropriations bills should be debated and subject to amendment from the floor.

    Separately, I oppose a much stricter germaneness test for amendment. But this isn’t about that but rather about the lack of comity in Congress and the resultant inability to do anything under normal order.

  11. george says:


    I am so tired of a notion that a bill is “rammed through” if it passes despite opposition from a minority.

    That’s the way it works in parlimentary democracies. However if they’re really not going to allow debate then that’s a very bad sign – the point of open legislature debate in such democracies is that the public can learn what’s going on; many bad bills are sent back for study in Canada despite the gov’t having a majority in a parlimentary system because the debate brings up embarrassing points.

    Debating a subject (and having second and third readings as per the British system) and then passing despite opposition is a pretty good system. Just passing it without debate is not – though from the above I couldn’t tell if they’re not going to allow debate (almost always a really bad idea), or just aren’t going to allow amendments (not a problem in general).

  12. @george: I think you are assuming that debate on the floor is a serious airing of opposing views. It really isn’t–most serious disagreements take place in committee or behind closed doors. Floor debate is usually for show.

  13. george says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    That’s also true in parlimentary systems such as Canada’s. However, the public airing (which the media sends observers to) tends to give high light reel quotations and forms the basis for the various media reports that lead to public reactions that often lead to bills being dropped or at least modified.

    A majority gov’t in the British system has far fewer checks and balances than the American system; what keeps them in line is the next election, and what happens in debates on the commons floor plays a fairly large role in that, even if the actual decisions are made in committees.

  14. @george: I wasn’t trying to make a comparative point, but yes. In general, floor debate is the least important part of the legislative process.

  15. 11B40 says:


    Greetings, nitpicker: (@ Tuesday, December 10, 2013 at 14:12 )

    Thank-you, kind sir. Like President Obama, I accept all kudos, however unearned.

    And, if I may add one more thing, “Greetings:” is not really a sentence, so you may want to review your count.

  16. dazedandconfused says:

    We take democracy for granted at great peril because it’s really a very fragile construct. Seems to me the historical record indicates, far more often than not, people will readily support “other options” simply to end chaos.

    We’ve been sending far too many clowns to Washington. Indicates people are already losing faith.

  17. Woody says:

    Again, how are the reluctant Congressfolk rewarded? Who is rewarding them?

    If they’re worried by the Tealots screaming Chamberlain at Munich! Benghazi! over not exacting a plague on the poor, they have to take this position.

    Not to worry, though – another decade of income divergence and Scalia’s corporate personhood fetish, and we’ll have titled (NOT titles of nobility – these are titles of Freedom . . . and corporations) patriots making the decisions without need of a vote.

  18. jd says:

    My avatar laughs to think that the world’s largest socialist program, U.S. defense, passes with the least debate.

  19. An Interested Party says:

    As Christmas approaches, it’s almost like the Ghost of Obamacare Medicare Part D Past.

    Happy to be of help…

  20. Barry says:

    James: “This may indeed be “the only way” to get a bill passed. But it’s not the American way.”

    That’s the problem – the ‘American way’, under a GOP minority, is to use record-setting levels of blocking – levels far above what they allowed when they were in the majority. The Democrats have two options: accept that the GOP gets 10x the blocking ability that they do, or play the GOP’s game right back at them.

  21. James Joyner says:

    @Barry: Well, the GOP controls and entire House of Congress. So, here, it’s their own leadership bypassing them.

  22. Barry says:

    @jd: “My avatar laughs to think that the world’s largest socialist program, U.S. defense, passes with the least debate. ”

    Somebody pointed out that there is a sweeping ‘trade bill’, which will get an up or down vote in the Senate – no debate, no modifications, no filibuster. After being negotiated in secret.

    In the end, it seems that whatever the elites wants slides riiiiiiiiiight on through.

  23. Rob in CT says:


    Beat me to it. Charles Pierce over at Esquire has been squawking about the Trans-Pacific Partnership deal (I think that’s the name), which Obama and others want to “fast track” through Congress.

  24. DrDaveT says:

    In fairness, the situation in the defense budget has gotten to the point where failure to pass a real authorization bill will waste tens of billions of dollars per year, just for lack of authority to start new programs. That’s enough of an emergency (caused solely by Congress’s mistaken belief that a continuing resolution is the functional equivalent of a real budget) that extreme measures are called for.

    To put it another way: you could fund essentially all of the controversial aspects of the rest of the discretionary budget with the money you will save by giving the defense department a real budget this year, instead of another CR.