House panel formally kicks off defense bill process despite coronavirus pandemic

House panel formally kicks off defense bill process despite coronavirus pandemic
© Greg Nash

The leaders of the House Armed Services Committee have officially kicked off the process for crafting the annual defense policy bill, introducing the “by request” version.

The churning of the legislative process for the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) comes despite the coronavirus pandemic that has disrupted business as usual in Congress and the country.

“As the nation grapples with the COVID-19 crisis, the committee continues to adhere to the guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Sergeant at Arms and the House Attending Physician,” the Armed Services Committee said in a statement Friday.

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“During this time of uncertainty, the committee remains focused on completing the FY21 NDAA and performing rigorous oversight through formal communications and teleconferences, which can and will be accomplished while protecting the health of our members and staff,” the statement added.

The committee has been expected to consider the bill — which dictates defense policy for the year and is considered must-pass — at the end of April, with the full House voting on it in May.

The panel traditionally kicks off the process a month or so before the markup by introducing a “by request” version, which only has proposals from the Pentagon and does not reflect any work done by the committee.

The text in that version is eventually stripped out and replaced with the committee’s work.

The committee’s markup of the bill is typically its best-attended session of the year, with a hearing room packed the entire day with the nearly 60-member panel, staffers, reporters and lobbyists sitting in tightly spaced chairs — something that would not adhere to social distancing guidelines meant to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

The Senate Armed Services Committee has started holding “paper hearings” to keep up work on the NDAA while adhering to social distancing rules.

In the paper hearings, written testimony and opening statements are being posted online and are expected to be followed a week later by senators' written questions and witnesses’ written answers. The committee held its first hearing in that format Thursday for the secretary and chief of staff of the Army.