WASHINGTON — Congress on Thursday gave final approval to an $858 billion military policy bill that would increase the Pentagon’s budget by 8 percent and repeal the coronavirus vaccine mandate for the troops, after lawmakers in both chambers overwhelmingly approved the mammoth, 4,400-page legislation.
Seen as one of the few must-pass bills taken up by Congress at the end of each year, the legislation, which authorizes an annual pay increase for the military and typically draws broad bipartisan support, lays out lawmakers’ national security priorities for the coming year. It is also a perennial magnet for unrelated pet projects.
This year, eyeing the protracted war in Europe and rising tensions with China, lawmakers approved funding for Taiwan and Ukraine and building up the military’s sea power, as well as new provisions shielding the personal information of federal judges and their families.
The legislation also authorizes a 4.6 percent pay raise for American troops.
Here’s a look at what’s in the bill, which has gone to President Biden for his signature.
Vaccine mandate repeal
Republicans pushed to include language rescinding the Pentagon’s requirement that troops take the coronavirus vaccine, one of several inoculations service members are required to receive. Across the armed services, a vast majority of service members are fully vaccinated against the coronavirus, and nearly all are at least partially vaccinated, according to data released by the various branches.
More on U.S. Armed Forces
- Defense Bill: Congress passed a $858 billion defense bill that would rescind the coronavirus vaccine mandate for troops and increase the defense budget $45 billion over President Biden’s request.
- J.R.O.T.C. Enrollment: In high schools across the country, students are being placed in military classes without electing them on their own.
- Navy SEAL Recruitment: The high failure rate of the elite force’s selection course shunts hundreds of candidates into low-skilled jobs.
- Abortion: The Pentagon is seeking to reassure service members worried about having access to abortions in states where the procedure is banned with travel funds and other support.
The Biden administration had strongly resisted the repeal, arguing that it would erode the health and readiness of the armed forces. But Republicans threatened to tank the entire military bill if it was not included.
Funds for Ukraine and Taiwan
Determined to continue aiding two young democracies, lawmakers voted to approve $800 million in military funding to Ukraine and to create a new defense program for Taiwan, authorizing up to $10 billion over the next five years.
A far bigger tranche of military aid for Kyiv is expected to pass through Congress later this year. The Biden administration in November asked lawmakers to approve an additional $38 billion for Ukraine, and despite growing voices in both parties questioning sending more money, bipartisan support for aiding the Ukrainians has remained strong.
Security for federal judges and their families
Lawmakers agreed to add to the military bill a measure with bipartisan support that would shield from the public the personal information of federal judges and their families, including identifying information like Social Security and license plate numbers, addresses, schools and places of employment.
The legislation gained momentum after the son of Judge Esther Salas was shot and killed at her home in New Brunswick, N.J., by a lawyer who had come looking for her and also shot her husband. “Judges, and their families, should not live in fear for doing the job they are sworn to do,” Judge Salas said in a statement on Friday.
Democrats attached a package of ocean conservation provisions, including a ban on owning or selling shark fins in the United States; an increase in funding for research and restoration of coral reefs; an increase in oversight of imported seafood; and an expansion of programs that monitor, research and map the oceans and Great Lakes.
The oceans package also expands the use of technology to monitor marine mammals to help prevent them from colliding with boats, legislation that is aimed in particular at preserving North Atlantic right whales, of which there are only 340 left in the world.
Expanded eligibility for the basic needs allowance for troops
The legislation makes it easier for active duty families to qualify for the basic needs allowance, a stipend designed to target food and housing insecurity for the most at-risk service members. Nearly one in four active duty service members experienced food insecurity at some point in 2020, according to a report released this year by the Department of Defense.
Provisions to mitigate civilian harm in military operations
After an investigative series by The New York Times into civilian deaths from American airstrikes, the Pentagon in August announced sweeping changes aimed at reducing risks to civilians in U.S. military operations. Congress has pushed Pentagon officials to go even further, and lawmakers included in the military bill $25 million to fund the staffing and other expenses of operationalizing those changes.
The bill requires greater specificity regarding the geographic location of strikes resulting in civilian casualties in annual reporting to Congress. And it extends the Defense Department’s authority to access congressionally approved funding to make condolence payments for civilians and their families inadvertently injured or killed in U.S. military operations, after it made zero such payments in 2020.
Shipbuilding budget increase of nearly $5 billion
Fears of rising tensions in the Indo-Pacific, paired with the fact that many senior members of Congress who sit on the national security committees hail from areas dependent on shipyards, resulted in another year of a boosted shipbuilding budget. Lawmakers authorized the procurement of 11 battle force ships and reversed plans for the early retirement of 12 vessels in the coming year.
The Navy’s budget request sought to decommission 24 ships and build eight.
Coral Davenport contributed reporting.