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Senate Clears $750 Billion Defense Policy Bill That Reforms the Security Clearance Process

Authorization act also contains 3.1% military pay hike and streamlines acquisition processes.

The Senate on Thursday approved a $750 billion version of the fiscal 2020 National Defense Authorization Act, handing uniformed personnel a 3.1% pay raise, streamlining software acquisition and bringing greater accountability to the long-backlogged security clearance process.

Senators of both parties, and a key contractors group applauded the bill, which passed by a vote of 86-8.

“Building upon several years of reform, the NDAA continues to streamline operations—continuing acquisition policy reform, recalibrating contract reform, and strengthening program oversight,” said an Armed Services Committee summary. “A more efficient bureaucracy will better utilize the full value of every taxpayer dollar spent on defense.”

Responding to Trump administration proposals, the bill (S. 1790) also would establish the United States Space Force under the Air Force.

Committee Chairman Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., said, “Congress has passed this critical legislation for 58 years running, and now, we’re one step closer to doing it for a 59th year. Today’s strong bipartisan vote shows our commitment to our constitutional responsibility to provide for the common defense.”

Ranking Member Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., added that the bill “makes critical investments in emerging technologies and a stronger cyber framework. The NDAA also includes needed reforms to help fix and improve on-base housing for military families.”

Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., hailed the bill’s language to overhaul the security clearance process. “With the inclusion of the Intelligence Authorization Act for fiscal years 2018-2020,” he said, “Congress takes key steps to modernize the nation’s security clearance process by reducing the background investigation inventory and bringing greater accountability to the system.”

Specifically, the bill would provide a statutory plan for consolidating the National Background Investigation Bureau at the Defense Department (already directed by executive order) and implement “practical reforms so that policies and clearance timelines can be designed to reflect modern circumstances,” Warner’s summary said. It would also strengthen oversight of the personnel vetting apparatus by codifying the Director of National Intelligence’s responsibilities as the Security Executive Agent.

Warner’s amendments on background checks won praise from the 400-company Professional Services Council, whose executive vice president and counsel Alan Chvotkin had written to the committee on Wednesday to say, “The wait times associated with obtaining a security clearance hinder the ability of the federal government and the contractor community to recruit and retain talent for high skilled, national security positions. Insights into the status of an application, coupled with the average time required for each phase of the security clearance process, will help employers and potential employees plan accordingly.”

After Thursday’s vote, he released a statement saying the group “is pleased that the Senate continues to prioritize this critical legislation. This year’s bill includes a number of provisions that will enhance our national security, will modify the Defense Department’s procedures to improve acquisition outcomes, and make the department a smarter buyer.” 

An example of acquisition reform is the bill’s provisions to adopt and oversee “modern software development and information technology acquisition practices to improve lethality and efficiency,” the bill summary said. It also would establish special pathways for rapid acquisition of software applications and upgrades,” requiring the use of more agile programming.

The contractors group applauded an amendment offered by Budget Committee Chairman Sen. Mike Enzi, R-Wyo., requiring the Government Accountability Office to study the impact and uncertainty that hits the Defense Department and other agencies and industry when Congress resorts to continuing resolutions at the end of a fiscal year rather than passing updated, long-term budgets.

Enzi was also successful in attaching an amendment to require the National Nuclear Security Administration within the Energy Department to implement measures to track its operating costs to identify efficiencies in its intercontinental ballistic program.

Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del., successfully attached two amendments to require the Pentagon to use environmentally safe chemicals in firefighting.

The House version of the NDAA (H.R. 2500) cleared the Armed Services Committee on June 19, with a supplemental report winning approval on Thursday. A floor vote is expected after the July 4 recess. It too contains IT software acquisition modernization provisions, as well as workforce development language that “modernizes the certification process at the department to emphasize professional skills that are transferable across the workforce and industry,” according to a summary.