Podcast - A Conversation with Partner Daniel Sennott, a Former House Armed Services Committee Staff Director
In this episode of "The Eyes on Washington Podcast" series, National Security, Defense and Intelligence Team leader Jason Klitenic introduces Partner Daniel Sennott and talks about drafting and passing the yearly National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). Mr. Sennott's experience includes most recently a stint as a minority staff director for the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Armed Services (HASC) in addition to service in the U.S. Army as an armor office and judge advocate. He explains the role of both HASC and its Senate counterpart as well as discusses how companies can interface with Congress and the Department of Defense to ensure their interests are represented in the NDAA. Mr. Sennott also provides an overview of the process of passing the NDAA, from the official kickoff in the president's budget request, to the extensive, sometimes days-long committee debate, to the final conference of the House and Senate bills. The attorneys conclude their conversation by highlighting a few key opportunities for contractors looking to enter the defense space, especially in the emerging technology sphere.
Jason Klitenic: Good morning, everyone. Good morning, listeners. This is Jason Klitenic at Holland & Knight. I'm joined by my friend and colleague Dan Sennott. We're going to be speaking this morning about the firm's National Security, Defense and Intelligence practice. Both Dan and I are members of that. Maybe quickly touch on our respective backgrounds and then turn it over to Dan. I rejoined the firm, rejoined Holland & Knight, about a year ago, a little more than a year ago, where I had been the general counsel to the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, worked on a wide variety of issues, coordinated issues throughout the 17 agencies that make up the intelligence community. Earlier in my career, I had also been at the Department of Homeland Security, where I was the deputy general counsel, as well as the Justice Department, where I was a deputy associate attorney general. But in the year that I've been back at the firm, I think the thing that I'm most proud of, I was able to recruit Dan Sennott. Dan joined us from HASC, which is the House Armed Services Committee. Dan was the minority staff director, and he's going to talk about that. He's going to talk about what he's been doing at the firm.
Introducing Daniel Sennott: Army Experience
Daniel Sennott: It's great to be here with you all, and it's great to be at Holland & Knight. As Jason mentioned, my name is Dan Sennott. I came to Holland & Knight in March from the House Armed Services Committee, where I was the Republican staff director. Prior to that, I was the general counsel. And then prior to that, I was a professional staff member working on military personnel issues. Before joining the Hill, I was in the Army for 21 years as a armor officer initially and then as a judge advocate, worked on a lot of international and operational law issues, government contracting issues, criminal issues and sort of the whole gamut. At Holland & Knight, my focus is on helping companies who are either traditional defense companies or nontraditional defense companies who are looking to do business with the Department of Defense or the Department of Veterans Affairs. And it has been a great opportunity to leverage both the relationships that I have in the Pentagon, the relationships on Capitol Hill, in order to help folks navigate through that Byzantine acquisition process in the Department of Defense and Veterans Affairs. And so it's great to be with the team. This is my first time actually in private practice, spent my entire career in the federal government. But it is just a great team here at Holland & Knight and a great opportunity to work with professionals from a multitude of different disciplines.
Jason Klitenic: Dan, you have the benefit of being a lawyer. So I tell people when I was in the government and I was serving my country and people come up and say, "Oh, thank you for your service," I would tell them — because it was true — all I did was just take paper and move it from the left side of my desk to the right side of my desk. But you actually went out and did stuff. I think being a JAG [judge advocate] is remarkable, and I think we should talk a little bit about that. I would love to hear about your experience as an Army JAG, but also the other day — and our conversation was interrupted — but you were telling me about riding around in a tank and how noisy it was, and I was getting all excited. I thought I was going to hear some great stories, and someone came to ask me, like, how do I change the toner in the copy machine or something. We never really got back on track. But you have this remarkable, wonderful career where you served our country not only on the Hill and in the courtroom, but also been deployed out to the theater and have served in a variety of different capacities. And so I think your background is extremely compelling because you understand the issues. But you know what it is to be with a war fighter. And I think that gives you a special perspective.
Daniel Sennott: It was a great opportunity to serve in that capacity. I spent the first six years of my Army career as an armor officer. So I was commissioned as an armor officer out of college and was stationed at Fort Riley, Kansas. It was a great opportunity to lead soldiers and to learn about combat and some of the challenges that service members face on a day-to-day basis. During my time as a judge advocate — so as I transitioned from being an armor officer to a judge advocate, I was stationed in Germany and then deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan. And so that was a great opportunity. As a judge advocate, you have the opportunity to practice several different areas of law. As I mentioned, I was a prosecutor, I served as a professor teaching federal claims, and then I also served as a chief of personnel law for the Army, which was a great opportunity to learn a lot about employment law and about personnel law and how the Army manages personnel and the military health system, which falls under that.
An Overview of HASC and the NDAA: Working with Congress and the Department of Defense
Jason Klitenic: Now let's move, moving to more, sort of, more recent current affairs. You come to us right off the Hill from the House Armed Services Committee, where you were minority staff director. Can you tell us a little bit about what does HASC — because we're all about acronyms, Dan — what does HASC do? What are the things within its portfolio? And then maybe talk a little bit about how that kind of segues into some of the things you've been doing here at Holland & Knight.
Daniel Sennott: So the HASC stands for House Armed Services Committee, and it is one of the two defense committees. And so there's the House Armed Services Committee and then the Senate Armed Services Committee. And primary responsibility and jurisdiction of those committees is to oversee the Department of Defense and all of its interests and activities throughout the world. And so we do that in a variety of different ways. The first way, obviously, is oversight. And so members hold hearings and briefings with witnesses from the Department of Defense to understand what's going on within the department and to better understand the policies and practices of the department. And then every year there is a National Defense Authorization Act, which we're responsible for putting together. And then the NDAA, as it's called, serves a few different functions. The first function is it authorizes the funding for the Department of Defense and for the defense programs of the Department of Energy each year. The second thing it does is it sets policy for the Department of Defense. And so it serves as sort of a roadmap for how the Department of Defense will conduct business. Now, the NDAA has been passed for 60 straight years on a bipartisan basis, and so as a result, it's very appealing to lawmakers, too. If they have priorities, they want to get them into the NDAA because they know that the NDAA at the end of the year is going to become law. And so you'll often see many nondefense-related issues also within the NDAA.
Jason Klitenic: Thank you. So this is where we get to sort of the shameless plug aspect of this podcast. And that being, if you are a member of the defense industrial base, you are a company and you work closely with and you support the Department of Defense and the various services or maybe other agencies that have their equities reflected in the NDAA, what is the best way — and by that I mean the most effective way — to interface with Congress, with HASC, to make sure that their interests are being represented?
Daniel Sennott: Yes, and I think it's important to talk about two different aspects of that and areas in which we might be able to help companies either doing business with the Department of Defense currently or wish to do business with the Department of Defense. The first one is to interact not just with the members of Congress and senators — which is very important, and that's something we can help facilitate — but making sure that you are interacting with those members and those senators whose interests align with yours. So you want to make sure that is folks who are interested in defense issues. Maybe they have an equity within their district or a specific background related to some work that you're doing. And then the second thing is to make sure that there is interaction with the professional staff of the Armed Services Committees. So those are the folks who are the worker bees who put together the bill. They help the members navigate priorities and understand issues as they're going into the bill, and they're going to be the folks who are actually drafting much of the language. And then the other component I think is important is oftentimes what you'll see is a proposal come up to either the professional staff or the member, and one of the first questions will really be what coordination you made with the Department of Defense, who have you talked to at the Department of Defense, because the first thing that the staff or the member of Congress is going to do is they're going to coordinate with the department to see if they support this initiative or this purchase prior to actually determining whether they want to back it in the NDAA.
Passing the NDAA: How Does It Actually Work?
Jason Klitenic: Are there what I would just chalk up as lessons learned, like whatever you do, don't do this, right? Some do's and don'ts, rules of the road, you know, these are things that I've seen that aren't particularly helpful, right? And then on the other end of the spectrum, if you are out there and you are looking for your interest to be appropriately represented, these are some things that you, Dan, have found and your colleagues found to be actually quite compelling.
Daniel Sennott: I think one of the keys to it, as I mentioned, first is to make sure that there is coordination with the Department of Defense before asking a member of Congress to carry a provision. The second thing I think that's important is to make sure that you have a clear articulation what the goal is. Maybe the goal can be achieved by report language — and report language is simply language that would require the department to provide a report on an issue — or it may be simply an encouragement of the department to consider a certain policy moving forward. So there are ways in which to influence outcomes without directly changing the law. Now, of course, sometimes that's what needs to happen, and certainly that happens every year that we change the underlying law. If there is a modification of the law, it's important to make sure that we understand what the interaction will be with other existing laws if that change has to occur. If it's the establishment of a new law, it's making sure that it is complementary to existing law. The other, I think, lesson learned is to understand the timeline of how the NDAA gets built. So I'll just talk a little bit about this year's timeline. Right now what we're waiting for is the president's budget request. So when the president's budget request comes over to Congress, which we anticipate, we're hearing, is probably going to be mid-May to late May, that is sort of the official kickoff, then, of the NDAA process of building that bill. Now, certainly both on the HASC side and SASC side, they are both currently working on underlying provisions and making sure that the bill is moving along. But really, the final draft, if you will, won't come out until there's an understanding of the president's budget request and what his priorities are. And then the bill will go to a markup. It'll be at the subcommittee level, and then at the full committee level, there will be a markup. And that is a sight to behold if you haven't seen one of those. Typically it starts at about 10 o'clock in the morning, and they go straight until it's done. And so some years we were there from 10 o'clock in the morning until six o'clock the next morning. Last year, we had a marathon session that ended at midnight, which was great to see. And so that is where members are able to submit amendments to the underlying mark that is established by the chairman. And then those amendments get debated. Some of them everybody agrees to, they don't have to be debated. Others have to be debated. And it's great to see sort of that process develop over the course of those hours. And then after the bill emerges from the committee, the final bill emerges with all the amendments. Then it goes to the floor, and then all 435 members, not just the Armed Services Committee members, have the opportunity to submit amendments. And then there's debate on the floor as well before the House passes its bill. And it's mirrored on the Senate side. And then there's a conference of the two bills where you sort out what provisions will be included and what provisions won't based on the differences in the two bills. That timing is important because oftentimes what we'll see is a really great idea or maybe a really doable idea, but that idea won't surface or the representative won't come to the staff or the member until it's too late. And so if you're coming in July or August to the Hill and asking for something to be put in the bill, it's too late to get it in the bill. So it's important to just keep in mind what that rhythm is and make sure that you're working within those timelines.
Jason Klitenic: And that's one incredible insight, trying to picture. We've all been party in a variety of different settings to marathon sessions, and it's always about the snacks. So I don't know, like, when you guys potluck, did you bring in Wisconsin cheese curds? Is it sort of every person for themselves? Was just passing out Dan, you know?
Daniel Sennott: The snacks were always the highlight, right until last year. Because of COVID, there were no snacks. There were prepackaged, very limited snacks and no eating in the room. So it was a challenge.
Jason Klitenic: The mission is too important. So I'm glad that you all pressed on sans the snacks because I would have gone down for the count. I would not have been able to persevere under those circumstances.
Daniel Sennott: Well maybe that's why it ended at midnight, actually.
Jason Klitenic: It says a lot about you. Well, I want to thank you. Thank you, Dan, for taking time to speak with me. Again, I will proudly announce that of all the different things I've done in my career, the highlight of my career is to be your colleague, and I know, Dan, that it's reciprocal. Right? And this is your chance to say that the highlight of your career, with all the remarkable things you've done for your country, is the fact you get to sit like 20 feet from me in the same way that I'm so excited to see you every day.
Daniel Sennott: That is, I would absolutely concur with that assessment. I'll just say in closing, I think there are some great opportunities, I think, this year with regard to the NDAA. I think there are a lot of priorities that have already been laid out by both the Democrats and Republicans to get this bill done. I think we're going to see a lot with regard once again to China, as we did last year, in countering the influence of China. We're going to see a lot with regard to the defense industrial base. And I think there are some opportunities for particularly — there has been an emphasis over the last several years — fostering emerging technology. So I think there are some great opportunities for companies who are not traditional defense contractors to get into this space if they have great ideas and emerging technology solutions to some of the thorny problems of the DOD.
Jason Klitenic: Remarkable, and again, I am very happy that you are with us, because, as I mentioned, we have a National Security, Defense and Intelligence team, and you touch on, hit on, all three of those elements. I hope you have a great day, Dan, and I hope everyone who's listening also has a great day.
Daniel Sennott: It's great to be with you, Jason, and look forward to working with you in the future. And thanks very much for having me.