Ignore the perpetual poutrage: Why holding the NDAA hostage to direct payments was always bad policy and terrible politics

Photo: Sen. Bernie Sanders (official government source)

There is a particular rage brewing by the alt-left at the Democrats (so it turns out that much is not new this year) for allowing the Senate to proceed to a vote to override Donald Trump's veto of the National Defense Authorization Act. The final vote to override the veto passed easily in the Senate with a 81-13 vote, marking the first-ever override of a Trump veto. Sens. Bernie Sanders and Ed Markey had attempted to hold up the veto override vote by filibustering it unless Mitch McConnell, the Republican majority leader, agreed to grant a floor vote on raising the emergency COVID relief bill's direct payments from $600 to $2,000.

Democrats universally support the $2,000 payments, and Speaker Pelosi passed a measure to do just that in the House. The House vote even earned enough Republican support to clear a two-thirds threshold. Mitch McConnell, however, would not allow the House measure (or a clean bill to raise the payments) on the Senate floor and has objected to multiple unanimous consent requests by Sanders and Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer to bring up and vote on the House bill. Given that Trump has called the move to block Senate passage of the House bill a 'death wish,' McConnell is the sole obstacle to a floor vote in the Senate.

But the socialist left and hardcore Bernie backers don't see it that way. Their perpetual poutrage against Democrats, in this instance, has taken the form of anger that Senate Democrats did not back up Bernie Sanders's attempt to hold up the NDAA override vote - something they believe to be important to McConnell - as a way of forcing a vote on the House bill. They are, as usual, without a clue.

The tying of the $2,000 relief checks to the veto override vote of the NDAA - which the House has already done - was always both wrong and untenable.

First, a veto override vote is a Constitutional duty of Congress, rather than just a legislative or policymaking option. A veto override vote combines the legislative prerogative of Congress with its powers to check and balance the executive. As such, it is treated as a matter of high privilege in Congress. Veto override votes are not about new legislation but about defending Congress's power to enact legislation it already passed once. For this reason alone, a veto override vote should never be contingent on any other legislative business of Congress, and no legislator should seek to make it so.

Second, Trump's veto of the NDAA represents a break-china departure from decades of bipartisan legislating on defense policy and authorization. Trump is the first president to veto an NDAA in almost 60 years.

But even beyond that, the NDAA represents important liberal policy goals that are, in the context of national priorities present and future, at least as important as a relief payment. Drowned out among the crescendo of leftist shouting matches about defense spending and war posture are several important social and economic priorities liberals should appreciate.

The end of celebrating the Confederacy: Among the specific reasons given in Trump's veto message, the 2021 NDAA represents Congress's first successful and serious attempt to strip away the remnants of treason and slavery from our military installations. It establishes a commission to recommend new names for military bases, other installations, and even paraphernalia that currently bear the names of Confederate generals and figures, whose sole purpose in taking up arms against the union was to defend the institution of slavery.

Demilitarization of police: In another move to limit the US military's participation in the lethal effects of systemic racism, the NDAA limits the militarization of police by, for the first time ever, codifying into law restrictions against unchecked sale of excess military equipment to local police departments. Though narrower than what was originally sought by Democrats - and was implemented by the executive policy under President Obama later rescinded by Donald Trump - the 2021 NDAA bans the sale of bayonets, lethal grenades, weaponized tanks, and weaponized drones to local police departments. The militarization of police leads to greater police violence against communities of color and provides no actual benefit to the safety of police officers.

Cybersecurity to prevent election interference by forces like Russia: The NDAA also codifies our cybersecurity posture against threats like Russia, which not only intervened in American elections four years ago but is presently engaged in compromising multiple critical US government systems, including DoD and Homeland Security. In addition to implementing a series of cybersecurity expert recommendations, the NDAA also strengthens the role of the Director of the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) in a rebuke to Donald Trump. Trump fired the last director of CISA because of its assessment that his claims of technological hacking into this year's presidential elections were without merit.

Pay increase, health care, and housing for military personnel: If it's money in the pockets of people that's important, then the NDAA's pay raises for military personnel cannot be ignored. Career military is not a particularly well-paid profession, and the majority of non-career military members earn less than $30,000 a year. Not only does the NDAA raise military pay by 3% across the board, but it also increases hazardous duty pay by 10%. There is no "progressive" argument to be made that unless an additional $1,400 one-time direct payment is given priority, the critically needed pay raises for enlisted military personnel - which are disproportionately Black, other people of color, and people from economically disadvantaged backgrounds - should also be sacrificed.

The NDAA also, for the first time, outlaws substandard military housing. It expands military health care (TRICARE) benefits and mental health programs, as well as requires a process to report sexual assault without fear of retribution. The question is whether the people who regularly hold up signs to the effect of "health care is a human right" and "cancel rent" actually believe in health care and housing for members of our military beyond their sloganeering.

Aside from policy measures, Sanders's filibuster has proven tactically useless and may have even been counterproductive had it not failed. Mitch McConnell has clearly not been persuaded by Sanders's antics to bring the House-passed direct payment measure to the Senate floor, as much as we may all wish it had worked. McConnell would have been perfectly content to hold up the $2,000 checks and hand Trump a victory on the NDAA on the backs of Democrats in the Senate. Given that, all Sanders's theatrics would have accomplished is to derail legislation that aims to erase the stains of the Confederacy from America's military installations, cracks down on the militarization of police, and increases pay and expands health care services for America's soldiers. The vast majority of Democratic Senators were right not to allow Sanders to leverage one over the other.

In fact, the Democratic tactic to override the NDAA vote and demand a vote on the House bill to increase direct payments on a parallel but unconnected track increases the possibility that Americans will eventually get the $2,000 checks.

Without Democrats blocking the vote, Republicans had no excuse not to override Trump's NDAA veto. That, in turn, makes life more difficult for Sens. Kelly Loeffler and David Purdue by putting them in the position of having to choose between the military and Trump days before the Georgia runoff elections, in which they need the votes of constituencies loyal to Trump and those loyal to the military. Their opponents, Raphael Warnock and Jon Osoff, in the meantime, can run on promising $2,000 checks if they get elected.

And there is a clear path for them to deliver. Should both Osoff and Warnock win, Democrats will control the Senate by the virtue of Vice President-elect Kamala Harris's tiebreaking vote once she and President-elect Biden take office. Once Democrats control the Senate, they can put a standalone bill on the floor, pass it, and send it to President Biden for his signature. Because a new Congress will have been convened by then, the House will also have to pass an equivalent measure, but that should be a formality given that Democrats will retain their majority in the new Congress.

But if Democrats had blocked the enactment of the NDAA, Republicans would have been presented with a golden opportunity to blame Democrats for taking away military funding - turning one of their greatest embarrassments to political advantage. That may well have been enough to keep Ossoff and Warnock from replacing their Republican opponents in the Senate, permanently ending the possibility of bigger direct payments.

There should be $2,000 in direct payments to Americans to weather the economic storm the Trump administration's inept coronavirus response has caused. Donald Trump's outrageous veto of the NDAA deserved to overridden. Linking the two was always both bad policy and inept political strategy.

Update: This article has been updated to reflect that Conrgess has formally overridden Trump's veto of the NDAA.