NDAA Includes $150 Billion Deficit-Increasing Program

The Senate-passed National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year (FY) 2024 (NDAA) would increase the deficit by $153 billion over a decade, according to recent estimates from the Congressional Budget Office (CBO). Nearly all of that increase, $147 billion, is tied to the expansion of the 1990 Radiation Exposure Compensation Act (RECA) fund created to compensate individuals who worked on nuclear testing or were affected by the atmospheric impacts of the Trinity Test.  

While this cost may not have been known at the time of passage, Congress should now consider whether to move forward with this proposal, how it could be modified or scaled back, and – importantly – how it should be fully paid for. Given that the nuclear testing and aftermath have been known about for decades, there is no reason why Congress doesn’t have time to figure out how to pay for a new compensation system, as opposed to just adding it to a historically large deficit. 

When Congress last extended the RECA in 2022 for two years, the extension cost just under $50 million a year. Most of the new changes in the NDAA vastly alter the number of individuals eligible for compensation and the amount of that compensation at a cost of $143 billion over ten years.  

Adding to the cost is a new $4 billion benefit for individuals living in St. Louis, Missouri, near where Manhattan Project waste was located. Anyone who lived there for two years beginning in 1949, or will live there in the future, and experiences costs related to specified medical issues – including nearly any type of cancer – is eligible for a minimum of $50,000 in compensation. 

The House also passed their version of the NDAA in July, which does not contain these expensive amendments to the RECA. As the two chambers of Congress work to iron out the differences between the bills, they should more thoroughly scrutinize the Senate changes. While compensation is justified for those who have suffered due to government nuclear testing and mining sites, the unusually high cost of the Senate’s RECA extension suggests it is likely overly expansive in its scope.  

At the very least, any increase in expense should be fully paid for with higher revenue, lower spending, or some combination. If lawmakers are committed to expanding benefits for deserving individuals, they should be equally committed to paying for those expansions.