Dollars & Cents: Making Sense of the NDAA and Appropriations Bill for Servicemembers
“Hey, if you want new desks or monitors, let the S4 know now!” As a young staff officer, I excitedly opened the GSA website to find the perfect upgrade for my office. My unit had not spent all its annually budgeted funds, and as a result I was about to get a chair with better lumbar support. Afraid of losing comparable funding for the next fiscal year, my organization felt incentivized to spend. As a Captain, that was the closest I had ever been to what I thought was the Army’s budget process. I did not know the first thing about the Army’s Planning, Programming, Budgeting, and Execution (PPBE) system, let alone the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) or Defense Appropriations Bill.
I had spent most of my career at the tactical level before arriving on Capitol Hill where I served on a Senator’s staff and later in the Pentagon as a Legislative Liaison. I was most likely to be the Soldier who would ride through the gate of a soon to be renamed installation in a newly fielded Joint Light Tactical Vehicle (JLTV). Like most, I was merely a Soldier affected by the NDAA’s policy changes and Appropriations Bill funding.
I had no idea what influenced the Army’s ability to man and equip its units. Decisions made by Congress in the Defense Appropriations and Military Construction/Veterans’ Affairs Bills affect how much the Army receives. This translates directly into what you end up with to prepare your unit for combat.
Understanding what the NDAA, appropriations bill, and continuing resolution accomplish can provide officers with realistic expectations for each piece of legislation. The NDAA impacts policy, defense appropriations bills provide funding for new and existing programs, and continuing resolutions continue to fund the government at the previously approved funding level.
What Exactly is the NDAA?
The NDAA shapes policy and can be a messaging tool that depicts what Congress values. It does not fund the military or determine how much each service receives.
The nearly 2000-page document’s purpose is to sign into policy items that will influence funding the military will receive through later appropriations. The formal NDAA process fulfills Congress’ constitutional requirement to annually evaluate military funding. Essentially, it reviews the military’s programs and activities to determine what must be added, expanded, or eliminated in the upcoming fiscal year.
At first glance, the NDAA appears to be several standalone policies or bills (recommended laws) grouped together in one document. Legislators’ congressional intent for military programs and activities can range from missile defense to the rollout of the Army Combat Fitness Test (ACFT). It is imperative that the Army ensures that Congress understands its current missions, requirements, and challenges when drafting this document. Congress’ decisions have major policy implications.
Again, The NDAA is NOT a check. The dollar amounts annotated are seen as recommendations for the Appropriations Committee who will ultimately determine how much funding the military receives. The NDAA’s figures and the President’s Budget are both considered while drafting the Appropriations Bills. Ultimately the Appropriations Committees will have the largest say in determining how much the military will be funded.
What is the Defense Appropriation Bill?
There can be up to 13 separate appropriations bills which lay out how much money programs within them will receive from the federal government. These bills range from agriculture to healthcare. You may see one appropriations bill passed individually or multiple bills combined and passed together in what is commonly referred to as an omnibus.
The defense appropriation is more than ten percent of the entire annual federal budget. Appropriators and Professional Staff Members (PSMs) on the Defense and Military Construction/Veterans’ Affairs (VA) Appropriations subcommittees align money to one of five types of funding, or as the Army often says “pots” or “colors” of money: Military Personnel, Operations & Maintenance (O&M), Procurement, Research, Development, Testing & Evaluation (RDT&E), and Military Construction (MILCON).
Our Nation’s defense budget is larger than the next nine national defense budgets COMBINED—including both China & Russia. Some members of Congress are looking for ways to shrink it in the future. Less money spent on the military allows greater funding for domestic projects or other national/local priorities.
Choosing to ignore Congress when engaged can easily result in a program not being fully funded due to a lack of justification. Each of the services executes congressional travel with Members of Congress, their personal staffs, and committee PSMs in order to provide Congress with the so what behind funding requests. There is no substitute for seeing something with your own eyes, and congressional delegations (CODELs) and staff delegations (STAFFDELs) visits led by individuals at the unit level can make a profound impact.
How do Continuing Resolutions Impact Funding?
Continuing Resolutions (CRs) are generally used for defense when Congress cannot agree on an appropriation or when an appropriation/previous CR is nearing expiration prior to Congress passing a new bill.
Defense CRs have limitations in that they fund the DoD at the same level that it was previously. Unless Congress addresses a particular program, no new programs are allowed to be initiated. When the DoD gets the same amount of funding multiple years in a row, inflation causes the department to receive less money. Also, even if the Army received the exact amount of money that it needed, that wouldn’t mean that all of it was in the correct “pot of money.” The Army Budget Office would have to work with Congress in order to receive approval to move large amounts of money between programs and titled appropriations.
Military leaders are expected to remain apolitical, therefore, many wish to steer clear of Congress. With its rigid structure and organizations, it is often hard for leaders to grasp the delineation between politics and policy. Though the military cannot engage in politics we must be aware and understand our role in affecting policies such as the NDAA and Defense Appropriations Bill. As a citizen and a member of the military, you have the right to understand the process and how military budgets are developed. Do not exist in a vacuum. The more you know the better off you will be. Making the transition from a junior officer to a senior one will require you to know how to navigate the halls of Congress. Best to start that learning now.
Additional Takeaways to Broaden Your Perspective
- Some servicemembers may wonder why the NDAA is so important. It matters because of the existing appropriations subcommittees, defense is the only one that reliably submits an authorization for appropriation each year. Plus, it is almost never vetoed. For this reason, the NDAA becomes a “Christmas tree” upon which several members attempt to hang other unrelated legislation in order to eventually fund community projects that might not otherwise happen.
- The NDAA can be thought of as the Department of Defense’s (DoD) grocery list. It details every program or activity that should be continued, eliminated, or created. It even has proposals for how much should be spent. The final passed Defense and MILCON appropriations bills represent the DoD actually going to the grocery store to fill up its cart. While there, sometimes it adds or scratches things from the list. The outlays—the DoD requesting its appropriated funding to spend it on approved programs—is each service heading to the checkout counter and actually making its purchase.
The length of time that appropriated funding is available varies by category. Military Personnel and O&M funding must be spent within the fiscal year that they are appropriated. RDT&E and Procurement funding must be spent within 3 years. MILCON funding lasts for five fiscal years. Imagine having a bank account with a clock attached to it. If funding is not spent within a certain time frame, it does not remain in an account indefinitely. Anything that is not spent is returned to the Treasury.
Services are held accountable for how funds are executed or spent. If the Army overspends on programs that Congress did not approve, they can expect future marks—cuts—and the loss of Congress’ trust.
- The National Military Strategy (NMS) feeds into the National Defense Strategy (NDS) which is nested in the National Security Strategy (NSS). The President and executive branch draft the NSS which outlines threats and global challenges to U.S. national security such as the pandemic, climate change, or nuclear proliferation. The NDS and NMS further focus on how the services and combatant commands intend to prioritize and meet those threats to national security via lines of effort.
You see these priorities highlighted within the NDAA and defense appropriations bills. The NDAA’s defense provisions generally support the objectives laid out by the National Defense Strategy’s (NDS) priorities. When crafting the NDAA, Congress considers what each service and combatant command requests. Still, Congress is not beholden to the NDS. As other conflicts or crises arise, such as the current conflict in Ukraine or the United States military’s withdrawal from Afghanistan, Congress can pivot to accommodate the new landscape and threat environment.
Major Kimberly Mallard-Brown is an Adjutant General Officer currently stationed in the National Capital Region as a Congressional Budget Liaison while also currently serving as a National Security Fellow for the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies. She is a former Defense Fellow within the U.S. Senate and a Congressional Partnership Program Fellow. Mallard-Brown received her Masters in Legislative Affairs from George Washington University and double-majored in Arabic and Sociology to receive a Bachelor of Science degree from the United States Military Academy at West Point, NY.
 Heitshusen, V. & McGarry, B.W. (2021, December 6). Defense Primer: The NDAA Process. Congressional Research Service. https://sgp.fas.org/crs/natsec/IF10515.pdf Updated 6 DEC 2021.
 U.S. Const. Art. I, §8
 Appropriations. United States Senate. https://www.senate.gov/reference/reference_index_subjects/Appropriations_vrd.htm
 Defense and National Security. Congressional Budget Office. https://www.cbo.gov/topics/defense-and-national-security.
 Budget Materials. Army Financial Management & Comptroller. https://www.asafm.army.mil/Budget-Materials/FY-2021/
 (2022, June 1). The United States Spends More on Defense Than the Next 9 Countries Combined. Peter G. Peterson Foundation. https://www.pgpf.org/blog/2022/06/the-united-states-spends-more-on-defense-than-the-next-9-countries-combined.
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