Statement On The FY2021 National Defense Authorization Act Conference Report

. . . . Congressional Record

Mr. President, the Senate has before it today the result of a compromise. The conference report that will result in the adoption of the National Defense Authorization Act— NDAA—for fiscal year 2021 is neither the bill the Senate approved, nor the one the House passed. I am pleased that this conference report cures many of the problems that led to my vote to oppose the Senate bill. Specifically, the conference report is void of the authority for funds to support testing of a new nuclear device, which was included in the Senate bill. This sends an important message to the world about Congress’s support for U.S. leadership in armed control. Further, the conference report advances the progress we have made with regard to Vietnam. This NDAA sends a clear message that Congress believes in the importance of cooperation with Vietnam, both to advance our shared security interests and to address some of the worst consequences of that war. The conference report will extend the authorization for the Department of Defense to help decontaminate the Bien Hoa Airbase from the lingering poison of dioxin, and it includes new authorization to help the Government of Vietnam locate and identify some of its hundreds of thousands of MIAs, as they have helped us locate our own MIAs over so many years. The bill will also help the veterans of that war who were exposed to dioxin. The expansion of presumption of exposure included in this bill will mean that Americans suffering from a number of linked ailments can spend their time seeking treatment, rather than jumping through bureaucratic and legal hoops. For many veterans exposed to airborne toxic substances through burn pits, this bill also includes a number of provisions to make it easier to identify their exposure and for them to make connections needed while seeking medical care. It continues the march towards rectifying the Department of Defense’s PFOS/ PFOA usage. While there is much to be done in both these areas, this is a positive step forward. This bill is imperfect, but of particular concern to me is the addition in conference, without proper vetting or evaluation, of several provisions that undermine the Freedom of Information Act, our Nation’s premier transparency law. Many of these provisions were in neither the Senate nor the House bill. For a number of years, I have worked in a bipartisan manner with other members of the Judiciary Committee to consult with the Senate Armed Services Committee to provide the feedback and expertise in FOIA matters, as it relates to proposals within the NDAA. That inclusive process, where committees of jurisdiction are consulted on their areas of expertise, has ensured that the NDAA does not become a vehicle for unwise or harmful policies. This time, however, a number of provisions needlessly piercing holes in FOIA were inserted during conference negotiations without any consultation with the Judiciary Committee. Unsurprisingly, a process that took place behind closed doors resulted in policies undermining the American people’s ability to know what their government is doing. Unfortunately, this is slowly becoming a routine practice, and it must not happen again. I want to put everyone on notice: I will insist that the Judiciary Committee and those of us who worked for many years on these matters are consulted on provisions that fall within the purview of our committee before they are included in the NDAA. That consultation process has produced good outcomes for the American people for years. Let’s not change it now. With these concerns in mind, on balance, this is a defense authorization bill that I will support. It advances our efforts to reconcile with our history and address the naming of our military bases after Confederate generals, something over which the President inexplicably threatened to veto the bill. It rejects the President’s demands to repeal section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, something that advances his personal war, but which demands careful consideration and should not be used as hostage bait. This conference report authorizes over $740 billion in spending. The defense of our Nation and our international role in providing security and promoting stability demand significant investments. I hope, however, that in future years, Congress will thoughtfully consider the skewed balance of our defense investments against other critical domestic needs. These are difficult questions, but ones that demand debate and honest review.