July 30, 2020

Van Hollen Statement for the Record on National Defense Authorization Act Vote

Mr. President, I rise to speak on the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2021.

The National Defense Authorization Act provides crucial resources for our Armed Forces and our national defense, including a pay increase for our men and women in uniform. I am glad that the Senate was able to come together on a bipartisan basis to pass this legislation to support our servicemembers, strengthen our national security, and invest in critical projects in my home state of Maryland. While there are parts of this legislation that I do not support and will seek to change in Conference, I believe that, on balance, this bill serves our national interest. 

In particular, I am pleased that this NDAA grants expanded acquisition authority for U.S. Cyber Command, headquartered at Fort Meade. I echo the comments of the Armed Services Committee in its report, which finds that Cyber Command’s expanded mission and responsible use of its acquisition authority justify the removal of the constraints imposed by the FY16 NDAA. 

I appreciate that my colleagues on the Senate Armed Services Committee adopted Senator Warren’s amendment directing the Pentagon to begin the process of renaming military bases named for Confederate soldiers. No American military installations should be named in honor of those who led the fight against the union to defend slavery.

I also want to note my gratitude to Chairman Inhofe and Ranking Member Reed and their staffs for working with me to include relief for the family of Lieutenant Richard W. Collins III. Lt. Collins’ tragic death was made even more painful for his family through the challenges they faced in receiving the proper benefits and recognition for their son. Nothing will ever fill the void of their loss, but I’m hopeful this provision brings the Collins family some peace of mind.

Additionally, it is worth highlighting for the record that the House NDAA included a provision extending the review period of the World War I valor medals review authorized by Section 584 of last year’s NDAA. The Valor Medals Review Task Force has worked tirelessly to identify the service records of World War I veterans who may have been passed over for the Medal of Honor on the basis of race or ethnicity. Unfortunately, the COVID-19 pandemic has limited their access to research materials and necessitated an extension for them to complete their work. I encourage the conferees to retain the House’s provision granting this extension.

While I am pleased with many of the provisions included in this bill, and voted for its passage, I do have significant reservations.

I am deeply disappointed that this bill authorizes full funding for the President’s misguided and wasteful nuclear weapons programs while taking no action to preserve the New START treaty – the standing agreement capping U.S. and Russian nuclear forces. For more than half a century, successive administrations have linked arms control with nuclear modernization efforts as a way of promoting stable deterrence and heading off an unconstrained arms race. Failure to extend New START will unravel this linkage, freeing Russia of limits on its nuclear arsenal and sparking a costly, destabilizing arms buildup. 

I also strongly oppose the authorization of funds to prepare for an explosive underground nuclear test – an act that would prompt our nuclear-armed adversaries to conduct their own tests and would undermine longstanding arms control and nonproliferation objectives. I applaud the House’s passage of an amendment to bar nuclear testing in its NDAA, and I urge my colleagues to uphold this prohibition in conference negotiations. 

I also believe this bill fails to tackle the long-term budget challenges facing our country, which why I was disappointed that the Senate rejected Senator Sanders’ amendment to reduce defense spending by 10 percent and invest that money into health care, education, and poverty reduction in communities with a poverty rate of 25% percent or more. In the midst of the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression, a pandemic that has taken the lives of more than 150,000 of our fellow Americans and shows no signs of slowing down, and the impending crises of homelessness and joblessness that we face if the Congress fails to provide relief, we simply cannot afford to continue this level of investment in defense at the expense of other critical national priorities.

I regret that the Senate was not given an opportunity to vote on my amendment, cosponsored by thirteen other senators, prohibiting the use of U.S. security assistance to support the unilateral annexation of all or parts of the West Bank. The security assistance which the United States provides to Israel is an important element of the relationship between our two countries and one that I strongly support. As I explained in my Floor statement at the time of its introduction, the amendment would not have reduced U.S. security assistance to Israel by a single penny. It would simply have ensured that no U.S. security assistance could be used for the purpose of unilaterally annexing territory in the West Bank. Furthermore, nothing in this amendment would have prohibited Israel from using U.S.-financed missile defense systems such as Iron Dome to defend against attacks in any territories that could be unilaterally annexed by the Israeli government.

Likewise, I am troubled that the Majority Leader would not permit a vote on Senators Wyden and Merkley’s amendment to end the President’s unconstitutional attacks on Americans exercising their First Amendment rights in Portland. Portland is not the first city to experience these tactics – President Trump sent unidentified federal police onto the streets of our nation’s capital to threaten peaceful protesters. Now he’s threatening to send them to other American cities, including Baltimore. We must require federal agents to wear visible identification and ban them from making arrests or detentions using unmarked vehicles. The Senate’s failure to act quickly to respond to the President’s unconstitutional behavior is shameful.

Finally, Majority Leader McConnell, at the behest of the Trump Administration, once again blocked the inclusion the bipartisan DETER Act, which I introduced with Senator Rubio to deter future Russian interference in U.S. Federal elections. The DETER Act sends a clear message to Russian President Putin or any other foreign adversary: If you attack American elections, you will face severe consequences. Leader McConnell blocked this measure from the last NDAA, even though the Senate had unanimously passed a resolution instructing the conferees to support its inclusion.

The decision of the Trump Administration, working through Senator McConnell, to continue to block the DETER Act effectively green-lights Russian interference in future U.S. elections. It is a gift to Russian President Vladimir Putin and a subversion of the clear desire expressed by both chambers of Congress to hold Russia accountable for future interference. It reinforces Putin’s belief that the costs of attacking our democracy are low and the rewards are great. I will continue fighting for the passage of the DETER Act. The presidential election is less than four months away, and we must make clear to Putin that Russia will pay a steep price if they interfere in another election.

While I am opposed to some of the provisions in this bill and disappointed by the omission of others, I believe that, on balance, the NDAA will strengthen our national security and advance other important national priorities. For that reason, I voted in support of final passage.