"If a bill is presented to the President in the current form of either version of the NDAA, I will join with the President's other senior advisors in recommending that he veto the legislation," Carter said in the July 13 letter. "I am, however, hopeful that you will address the Department's concerns during your conference negotiations."
The threat, which came as House and Senate conferees began to reconcile differences between the two bills, follows Carter's broader public objections to Congress' "micromanagement" of the Pentagon. The letter spells out grievances with the Senate-passed bill's overhaul of DoD's acquisition leadership, among other organizational prescriptions, as well as the bills' rejection of ways for DoD to cut costs.
Pushing back against raft of aggressive bureaucratic overhaul provisions, Carter called for more study and review, to be done by a new bipartisan panel in the style of the Packard Commission, whose recommendations were rolled into the defense reforms of the 1986 Goldwater-Nichols Act. He drew a contrast with this year's proposed reforms and those, which he said grew from "years of study and debate" for a better understanding of the ripple effects from those changes, and "more responsible timing and timelines."
Under the banner of Goldwater-Nichols bureaucratic reforms, both policy bills took a number of steps which Carter called, "excessive micromanagement." Carter counted 131 acquisition policy provisions, 120 military personnel policy provisions, and 69 health care provisions from both bills that would "require extensive implementation efforts," for the military.
Carter lamented potential chaos involved in implementing overlapping restructuring efforts, which would need added staff, just as Congress would mandate a new round of personnel reductions for senior civilians and uniformed officials. For instance, a plan to shift responsibility for personnel security and background checks would require more headquarters personnel to implement, not less.
"The Department is engaged in multiple overseas conflicts, including in the ongoing fight against [the Islamic State group], and is about to experience a transition to a new presidential administration," Carter wrote. "With this backdrop, the first rule for the NDAA must be: do no harm. The scope, specificity, and pace of the prescribed major reforms and policy changes in the Senate bill, in particular do not meet this standard.
President Obama has threatened to veto the House and Senate versions of the bills — the House bill over its unorthodox treatment of overseas contingency operations (OCO) funds, and the Senate bill over its acquisition reform provisions and limits it would place on the closure of the Guantanamo military detainment facility in Cuba — objections Carter echoed.
The House passed a version of the policy bill that shifts $18 billion in OCO toward base budget requirements, and adds more troops, jet aircraft, shipbuilding and rotorcraft than the president's budget. The House bill also cuts off OCO after April 30, 2017, a gambit to force the next president to ask Congress for supplemental defense spending next year.
The Senate did not take the same route.
"By gambling with warfighting funds, the bill risks the safety of our men and women fighting to keep America safe, undercuts stable planning and efficient use of taxpayer dollars, dispirits troops and their families, baffles our allies, and emboldens our enemies," Carter's letter reads. "In short, it is an approach that is objectionable on its face."
Joe Gould was the senior Pentagon reporter for Defense News, covering the intersection of national security policy, politics and the defense industry. He had previously served as Congress reporter.