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The Sausage Factory

Congress Continues 50+ Year Record with McCain Defense Authorization Bill

It’s a big day for Senator John McCain today. For one, he’s left-handed, and it’s International Left Handers Day.

Second—and much more importantly—President Donald Trump signed the John S. McCain National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2019 today.

It is common for Congress to name the annual Department of Defense authorization act in honor of a Member who has made significant contributions to America’s armed forces. No doubt, Senator McCain deserves this honor due to his valiant service during the Vietnam War and his efforts on behalf of America’s military personnel during his tenure in Congress.

Aside from being a tribute to Senator McCain, the Department of Defense authorization act is noteworthy because it is one way that Congress uses to maintain accountability over both the country’s military policy and exercise oversight over the Executive Branch. Congress uses authorization bills to set the policies that the various Executive Branch departments and agencies must carry out. (They do not, however, provide the funds that the Executive Branch uses to carry out Congress’ will—those come in annual appropriations bills.)

The annual defense legislation is also worth a mention among authorization bills because Congress has a stellar record in actually passing it each year—for over five decades, in fact. Many authorizations carry expiration dates, which means that Congress should, in theory, review the policies and adopt a new bill when the previous one lapses. Regrettably, however, Congress has allowed lots of authorizations to expire but has not followed up with another bill. At the same time, it nonetheless provides funding to programs with unauthorized appropriations—a technical violation of House rules, which forbid appropriations to programs without current authorizations or appropriations in excess of the amount permitted in the authorization bill. This is unfortunate, because it represents Congress’ failure to shape policy through a current authorization bill. Some authorizations have been expired for years upon years. For example, each year the Congressional Budget Office produces a report on unauthorized appropriations, and in January 2018, the office identified many programs that have not been authorized since the 1980s and early 1990s.

Congress clearly has much to do to revamp its authorization process. Members of Congress and the congressional observers have lamented the failure to reauthorize programs, including us at the Congressional Institute. We have a much longer paper on the authorization process which goes into the topic in greater depth and discusses how Congress might improve; for more, read “Fixing the Authorization Process: Restoring Checks and Balances.”

Until Congress does improve its score on the authorization process generally, we can at least be grateful that it continues to adopt a Department of Defense authorization each year. And, once again, this year, we can be especially grateful to Senator McCain for his service to both Congress and the nation.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Mark Strand is the President of the Congressional Institute and Timothy Lang is a research director. The Sausage Factory blog is a Congressional Institute project dedicated to explaining parliamentary procedure, Congressional politics, and other issues pertaining to the Legislative Branch.

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