Which bill in Congress affects the deficit, abortion funding, gay rights, religious liberty, peace, nuclear arms, Israel, and even homeschooling? The National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA).
We reviewed the lobbying activity of over 300 religious interest groups. Of the over 500 bills that these interest groups lobbied on over the past two years, the annual defense spending bills were, by far, the biggest target of their advocacy.
The NDAA is so attractive to special interests because it is one of the few bills they can bet on becoming law. Even as Congress has failed to pass its other spending bills, it has managed to pass a Defense bill every year for the past five decades. If lobbyists can shoehorn a few words into the NDAA, they can rest assured that it will become law.
Very few of the changes religious interest groups push for in the NDAA address traditional military issues. Of course, some of these lobbyists are advocates for peace who always watch military bills. This year, these groups are concerned that riders to NDAA would direct U.S. foreign policy toward Iran, Hezbollah, and Syria.
Other groups are less concerned with turning swords into plowshares. The NDAA is just a big bill that can help them address other concerns. Homeschooling advocates have succeeded at including language that ensures that home-schooled students would be accepted under the same standards as those that attend public or private schools. Network, a Catholic social justice group, joined forces with taxpayer groups to fight efforts to break the sequestration spending limits because it would be raise the national debt.
The NDAA is also now a battleground in the culture wars, pitting advocates for LGBT rights against social conservatives who fear that chaplains in the military could be punished for their beliefs about homosexuality. A coalition of social conservatives lobbied successfully for rights of conscience protections in last year’s NDAA. This time around, they were able to include stronger language in this year’s House bill. This is getting a thumbs up from the Family Research Council, which sees the new language as necessary “to stop the raging secularism that has infected the Pentagon.”
This new language was opposed by People for the American Way, American Civil Liberties Union, and Americans United for the Separation of Church and State because they believed it would give chaplains and other military personnel cover to discriminate against gays or lesbians in the military.
The Obama administration also objected to this new language in the House bill as too restrictive on military leaders. A bipartisan coalition in the Senate Armed Services committee voted to relax the language of the House bill, giving the military more leeway in deciding when to allow expressions of religious belief.
Last year, pro-life and reproductive rights groups fought over the NDAA’s language on abortion policy. Prior to last year, female soldiers could receive an abortion in cases of rape or incest but the procedures were not covered by their insurance. Pro-life groups objected to any federal funding of abortion other than in cases of the life of the mother. Other religious groups, such as the National Council of Jewish Women, applauded the change in policy.
The Senate is expected to finish its work on the NDAA soon. The House and Senate are likely to come to an agreement on final version of the bill. Then in January, many religious lobbyists will start working on what new reforms they can attach to the next NDAA.