Lawmakers released the text of the 2023 annual defense bill this week after days of delays and negotiations. For more than six decades, the National Defense Authorization Act, or NDAA, has been passed annually to make changes to the country’s defense agencies and establish priorities and guidance on how military funding should be spent.
The Senate is expected to pass the bill next week before it goes to President Joe Biden for a signature.
This 2023 bill authorizes a record $857.9 billion — more than the president originally requested and nearly $90 billion more than last year’s defense bill. The large allocation is attributed to “vital national security priorities,” including heightened competition with China and Russia, according to the U.S. Senate Committee on Armed Services. Still, the NDAA will have a direct impact on military families, veterans and victims of sexual violence in the new year.
Here are parts of the bill that The 19th is watching:
Military justice reform
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, a Democrat and chair of the Senate Armed Services Personnel Subcommittee, has for nearly a decade championed changing the military’s chain of command when handling serious crimes. After significant parts of Gillibrand’s reform efforts were removed from the NDAA last year, the senator applauded their inclusion in this year’s bill. Commanders could for the first time be stripped of all judicial functions and prosecutorial duties in felony-level offenses, including cases of sexual assault.
“This is a historic milestone in our efforts to reform and professionalize the military justice system. And while it will take time to see the results of these changes, it is still important for us to celebrate this victory and continue our fight,” Gillibrand said in a press conference after lawmakers announced they’d come to an agreement on the 2023 NDAA.
According to Gillibrand’s office, fewer than a quarter of sexual assault survivors in the military are willing to report what happened. More than half of them said they would have been more likely to come forward if prosecutors — not their direct commanders — were the deciders in whether a case moves forward.
If the measure passes intact, within 180 days after the 2023 NDAA is enacted, commanders will no longer have the authority in felony-level cases to grant immunity to witnesses, approve experts, grant clemency, approve delays or convene preliminary hearings. The bill also ensures randomized jury selection.
Last year, Gillibrand pushed to include her Military Justice Improvement and Increasing Prevention Act as a provision to the 2022 NDAA — which designated independent special prosecutors to handle specific crimes, including rape, sexual assault, murder and domestic violence. Her bill, however, was denied full consideration late in the process “by four men in a closed room” — the Armed Forces Committee leaders from both the House and the Senate — despite bipartisan backing. As a result, military leaders still retained the authority to select the jury pool for a court martial, among other procedural decisions.
In June 2022, Gillibrand introduced a modified version of her military justice bill as an amendment to the 2023 NDAA, which would strip any remaining convening authority from commanders in addition to the reforms made in the 2022 NDAA. It passed in the Senate Armed Services Committee 19-7, with seven Republicans in support.
“I want to thank all of the survivors, advocates, veterans and other colleagues who have sustained the drumbeat on this critical issue, as well as all the senators on both sides of the aisle who helped to get this done,” Gillibrand said at the news conference.
Don Christensen, a retired Air Force colonel who served as the former chief prosecutor for the U.S. Air Force, said he had worked with Gillibrand on reforming the military justice system for more than eight years. He applauded the new additions made to this year’s NDAA, particularly given that “sexual harassment numbers are through the roof,” with more than one in four women reporting it.
“These changes will go a long ways to increasing the confidence survivors have — whether they’re survivors of domestic violence, sexual harassment, sexual assault, or they’re families and the loved ones of those who have been murdered — to come forward and feel like they’re going to get justice,” Christensen said at the news conference. “The confidence that military members have in the justice system is critical to our ability to have a lethal fighting force.”
Support for military families
More than 400,000 service members and their families move to a new post each year, typically staying for two to four years. The majority of these moves occur between May and September, in what is called permanent change of station (PCS) season. This season often causes financial insecurity, strains budgets and brings immense stress — all compounded by a lingering pandemic and rising inflation. And military spouses, of which more than 90 percent are women, often bear a large share of the burden.
To address the effects of inflation, the 2023 NDAA authorizes a 4.6 percent pay raise for military service members and civilian employees of the Department of Defense. The bill also increases reimbursements for costs related to a military spouse’s relicensing and business costs when moving and establishes a pilot program to help with certain child care costs during a PCS move.
To support the education of military families, the 2023 NDAA requires a pilot program to hire special education inclusion coordinators in areas with a high population of military children enrolled with special needs.
After a deeply partisan debate on whether U.S. service members should be vaccinated against COVID-19, negotiators ultimately decided to rescind a mandate. The mandate was originally issued in August 2021 and resulted in the involuntary separation of service or general discharge of thousands of troops.
Several attempts to include increased access to reproductive care, including abortion, in vitro fertilization and fertility treatments, were blocked from the final bill. As it stands, the Department of Defense is not authorized by federal law to perform or pay for abortions, except in cases that are the result of rape or incest or that endanger the life of the pregnant person. Federal regulations also prohibit abortion counseling, referral, preparation and follow-up care.