House Democrats are spending their waning days in the majority sparring with the White House and Pentagon over the imminent demise of the military’s COVID-19 vaccination requirement for active-duty troops.
It’s not that President Joe Biden and his fellow Democrats on Capitol Hill disagree on the vaccine requirement’s merits. But the 16-month-old policy became a victim of late-game congressional-White House negotiations and wrangling. Democrats, eager to keep a 61-year streak alive of getting the National Defense Authorization Act signed into law, were willing to end the Department of Defense’s coronavirus vaccine mandate in negotiations. Its expiration comes as 98% of active-duty troops have already been vaccinated.
The mandate currently in place requires service members to receive the initial two-shot Pfizer or Moderna vaccine or the one-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine, which the vast majority have done, Sabrina Singh, deputy Pentagon spokeswoman, said recently. But it’s that remaining 2% of unvaccinated service members that proved a key sticking point for the NDAA for fiscal 2023. Since 1961, Congress, under various partisan configurations and working with presidents of both parties, has enacted annual NDAAs, which specify the annual budget and expenditures of the U.S. Department of Defense.
About 8,400 active-duty service members, comprising that 2%, have chosen not to comply with the vaccination order put in place by Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin in August 2021. The provision to get rid of the requirement became a rallying cry for congressional Republicans, who have long railed against vaccine mandates in general. The military vaccine repeal provision was not in the original Senate or House version of the NDAA. But in recent weeks, conservatives have made it a key demand, led by House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA).
McCarthy is currently trying to wrangle enough votes to become House speaker when the 118th Congress convenes on Jan. 3. House Republicans will hold a narrow 222-213 majority, having flipped the chamber in the Nov. 8 elections after four years of Democratic control. But McCarthy is dependent on House conservatives to secure the speakership. And the military vaccine repeal provision comes as Congress and the Biden White House are also putting final touches on a spending deal for the remainder of the fiscal year, through Sept. 30, 2023.
But whatever demands made by Hill Republicans, the vaccine mandate change wouldn’t have been possible without the acquiescence — and in some cases outright support — of Democratic lawmakers, which went against the wishes of, among others, President Biden and Defense Secretary Austin, who both oppose ending the mandate as a matter of military readiness.
Rep. Adam Smith (D-WA), the outgoing chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, supports ending the mandate, even as he maintains it was “absolutely the right policy” upon its launch in August 2021. But the requirement is now outdated, Smith said at a Dec. 7 House Rules Committee hearing to set parameters of floor debate for the bill. Smith is set to yield the House Armed Services Committee gavel to Rep. Mike Rogers (R-AL) when Republicans take over the majority.
“But as we are here now in December of 2022, does that August 2021 policy still make sense? Is it still the right policy? We don’t believe that it is,” Smith said. “I don’t believe that it is because right now, the policy says that you have to have gotten the first shot. It’s a little confusing because the first shot, in some cases, was two shots, depending on what you got. Could have been Johnson & Johnson, could have been Pfizer, Moderna, which was two shots.”
Not all of Smith’s Democratic colleagues agreed. Even on Dec. 8 as the House passed the $858 billion NDAA 350 to 80.
Rep. Jason Crow (D-CO), a member of the House Armed Services Committee, did not support ending the mandate while voting yes on the overall bill. Crow, in an interview with the Washington Examiner, called the vaccine repeal provision “very unfortunate.”
“I think it’s inappropriate for Congress to insert itself in those commander decisions and the decisions of the department,” said Crow, a former Army Ranger. “Personally, I think that it sends the wrong message about the proper role of Congress to the nation.”
Crow, who served three tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan as part of the 82nd Airborne Division and 75th Ranger Regiment, added, “Some folks in Congress are willing to ignore data and science and the best judgment of our commanders and our military leaders and insert politics into the process. And that’s exactly the wrong message that we should be sending.”
More service members likely will be “getting sick,” Crow said. And that will “impact deployment schedules, [and] it’s going to impact the health of the force.”
The White House pinned blame on Republicans in the aftermath of the repeal. National Security Council spokesman John Kirby told reporters that Republicans “have obviously decided that they’d rather fight against the health and well-being of those troops rather than protecting them.” Kirby also declined to say whether the president would sign the NDAA if it makes it through both chambers and to his desk with the repeal still in it. No date has yet been set for a Senate floor vote on the NDAA.
Knowns and unknowns
Congressional conservatives didn’t get everything they wanted in the NDAA when it comes to ending active-duty vaccine requirements. Some had pushed for former service members forced out of the military for refusing to get the vaccines to be let back in.
Meanwhile, there’s little consensus about what effect the mandate has had on the military’s ability to recruit new service members, if any. The debate has come while military recruiting has already been on the decline. Officials have cited fewer people meeting the military’s eligibility requirements and the inability to recruit in person during the pandemic as primary factors in their recruiting woes.
Marine Corps Commandant Gen. David Berger said earlier in the month the mandate is hurting recruiting. And he cited misinformation surrounding the vaccine as the reason.
“Where it is having an impact for sure is on recruiting, where in parts of the country there’s still myths and misbeliefs about the backstory behind it,” Berger said during the Reagan National Defense Forum. “There was not accurate information out early on, and it was very politicized, and people make decisions, and they still have those same beliefs. That’s hard to work your way past.”
Berger recounted frequent interactions with potential recruits who found the COVID-19 vaccination a deal-killer for enlisting.
“You talk to me in the cafeteria, and one of my first questions is, ‘Do I have to get that vaccine?’ And you go, ‘Yeah, you do.’ ‘OK, I’ll talk to you later.’ It’s that fast,” he explained.
But Defense Secretary Austin said earlier this month he hadn’t “seen any hard data that directly links the COVID mandate to an effect on our recruiting.”
When asked about the apparent discrepancy between Berger’s and Austin’s accounts, Pentagon spokeswoman Singh explained, “Disinformation around the vaccine created confusion, which can, of course, lead to less people wanting to take it, which could lead to less people wanting to maybe enlist.”
Singh added, “Generally speaking, the vaccine mandate appears to have very minimal impact on recruiting, and, you know, we’re continuing to look at what we can do, to bring in talent, to bring in people all across the country into our services.”