On Aug. 1, 2011, hours before the government was set to default on its debt, House Speaker John Boehner convened Republican members of the House Armed Services Committee in his office to discuss a legislative solution.
The deal on the table, called the Budget Control Act, contained nearly a half-trillion-dollar cut in defense spending over the next decade and raised the prospect of another $500 billion reduction through a last-resort mechanism known as sequestration.
The speaker, encouraging votes for the deal, said the latter would never happen. And later that day, House Armed Services Committee Chairman Buck McKeon, R-Calif., publicly announced his support for the bill. Like Boehner, he considered the prospect of sequestration so terrible as to render it all but impossible.
“Well, I found out that we could do some pretty stupid things around here,” McKeon later told National Journal Daily.
The House Armed Services Committee is responsible for authorizing an annual Defense Department budget of more than half a trillion dollars at a time when defense spending, for the first time in perhaps decades, is not treated across the political spectrum as sacrosanct. The result is that McKeon and his defense-conscious colleagues are left to fend off—or at least try to mitigate and manage—what looks to be inevitable: a Pentagon budget spiraling downward, after two long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Add to that the declining power of Armed Services and other committees in an era when the House leadership is firmly in charge of fiscal matters, and it’s not easy being a defense hawk these days.
While no Armed Services chairman would ever want to put the defense budget on the bargaining table, let alone in jeopardy of indiscriminate cuts, McKeon found himself doing exactly that. He voted for—and encouraged others to support—legislation he would spend the next 22 months trying to undo. And the tough decisions are far from over.
“A few members of the committee … always start their speeches with, ‘I voted against it,’ ” McKeon said. “But they don’t go on to say, if [the Budget Control Act] had lost, how we would have handled the government shutdown. Most things here aren’t just black and white. You’ve got a lot of gray.”
The largest committee in the House, Armed Services has 62 members, seven subcommittees, and a huge jurisdiction that includes acquisition programs, overseas operations such as the war in Afghanistan, nuclear-weapons oversight, military personnel issues, and much more. Many of these policy issues get wrapped into the panel’s massive annual National Defense Authorization Act, which for fiscal 2014 included $552.1 billion in Pentagon spending and an additional $85.8 billion for overseas contingency operations.
Committee aides consider the must-pass bill to be just short of sacred. They work on it all year and lock themselves down during the annual markup. Many members also consider it to be the “last bastion of regular order,” because it has passed for 51 straight years. Lawmakers and staffers alike feel a certain sense of urgency that enables them, in the end, to transcend party politics for the sake of national defense. House Armed Services members, and their Senate counterparts, don’t want to be the ones to fail to get their bill to the president’s desk.
It’s no easy feat. Every year, lawmakers duke it out in the hearing room, where clashes of political ideology and attempts at home-district protectionism are vividly on display. And last week’s marathon markup brought heated debate on everything from base closures and F-35 fighter-jet funding to combat uniforms and military chaplains for atheists. But this year, the challenges are even bigger. The Budget Control Act required a $487 billion reduction in Pentagon spending over 10 years—and that was before sequestration took effect March 1, gouging another $500 billion over the same period.
The committee has done what it can to unwind sequestration—designed as a political penalty to force a gridlocked Congress to rein in spending—that was triggered when lawmakers failed to do so. Indeed, many, including President Obama, have called for an end to sequestration, and some hope, however dwindling, remains that Congress and the administration could reach a broader budget deal to accomplish that. Meanwhile, spending plans released by Obama, the House, and the Senate all treat sequestration differently.
While no budget for 2014 has yet been agreed upon and signed into law, the president’s spending plan essentially ignores sequestration by going over the cap set in the Budget Control Act for defense spending by $52 billion. (Instead of the $500 billion defense sequestration cuts over the next decade, the administration wants to carefully manage $150 billion in reductions over that time span.) Both the Senate and House are presuming they can alter the BCA, too, and neither chamber proposes deep defense cuts in the 2014 budget. But they disagree on how they will find the money. The Democratic-controlled Senate wants to keep defense spending level through revenue increases, and the Republican-controlled House would make offsetting cuts in entitlement programs.
“Both sides, their political posture is, ‘We don’t want to cut defense; we want to do other things to reduce the deficit,’ ” said Todd Harrison, a defense budget analyst at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. “Neither side wants to be the first ones to come out and say, ‘Here’s how we’re going to cut defense,’ because then it looks like they want to cut defense.”
All of this creates difficult waters for the House Armed Services Committee to navigate. Crafting a defense budget, as the administration did, that overshoots the Budget Control Act’s cap, sets sequestration into motion. But getting the defense budget top line to comply means the House panel would need to decline to authorize billions of dollars in military programs. “That would involve a lot of tough choices,” Harrison said. The committee was loath to make them, and this year, it marked up an authorization bill that very well may be fiction. “It looks like they very well may end up with [an authorization bill] that is disconnected from the fiscal constraints—and that leads to last-minute, rushed, nonstrategic cuts.”
CONGRESS VERSUS THE PENTAGON
Regardless of party or budget-cutting predilection, defense cuts are politically sensitive for lawmakers. Staffers say that every time a controversial issue arises, outside groups such as the Military Officers Association of America and the Reserve Officers Association flood their in-boxes. Lawmakers must also consider the needs of their districts back home, pressure from influential lobbies—and, sometimes, their greatest adversary is the Pentagon.
It’s a back-and-forth battle, with both sides alternately backing cuts and urging increases, and it often comes down to fights over specific programs. Some lawmakers, for instance, want to keep the Abrams tank production line alive in Lima, Ohio, even though the Army wants to shut it down. And the committee this year beat back the department’s request to reduce a 2014 military pay raise from 1.8 percent to 1 percent.
“There are constantly people … who would like to continue to have the same funding we’ve had over these last years,” deputy Defense Secretary Ashton Carter told National Journal Daily. “And we just have to fight from the high ground. The high ground is, ‘We’re here to defend the country; we’re not here to spend money for people’s individual welfare; we’re not here to spend money for a particular state or district.’ ”
As Carter put it, “This isn’t a jobs program. It’s a national defense program.”
Yet, as the Pentagon looks for ways to shrink the defense budget, many on the committee are hyper-focused on what they can protect.
“Too many members are still stuck in a parochial way of looking at things,” said Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash., the ranking member on Armed Services. “Back in the days when we had more money than we knew what to do with and the defense budget was doubling on a routine basis, it’s like, ‘Oh, I want more C-17s! more F-18s!’ It just kept coming.”
“Now”—Smith makes a whistling sound as he traces an invisible line with his fingers from above his head downward in a dramatic illustration of the plummeting defense budget—“you have members saying, ‘Wait a second, you can’t shut down those ships. Wait a second, the C-5As are in my district.’ ”
“We don’t have the money to actually fly them or float the ships, but we’re putting in money to keep them from shutting down,” Smith said. “The main reaction from the committee to this shrinking universe is, ‘OK, now I’ve really got to protect mine.’ ”
Even as DOD’s generals and civilian leaders have fought against sequestration, they have testified time and again that they accept the Budget Control Act’s mandate to draw down defense spending and that they can manage it safely. After long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the military is transforming itself. But convincing members of Congress and other stakeholders that the Pentagon does not need to maintain the same funding largesse can be a challenge.
Smith believes that Congress—including the House Armed Services Committee—will make the Pentagon’s cost-cutting mission harder. “If the Pentagon was able to put the budget together the way they wanted to—decommission the ships, close the bases, make the personnel cost changes—they’d make it work,” he said. “But I think the main role Congress has played to this point and is likely to continue to play is to just throw sand in the gears of that effort.” One GOP aide made similar points: “The question is whether Congress is going to be helpful or hurtful” to the planned defense spending drawdown. The aide was unapologetic. “We’re going to be hurtful, for sure.”
Indeed, what Carter might call intransigence others call legitimate oversight. Rep. Randy Forbes, R-Va., the chairman of the Seapower and Projection Forces Subcommittee, says the Pentagon has been more “responsive” to the panel in the past six months, after a “pretty bad” relationship over the past four years. Forbes laments that the Pentagon and Congress are not doing the “right kind of analysis and strategic thinking,” as in years past.
“There was a sea change that took place a few years ago when budgets started driving strategy instead of strategy driving budgets,” he said. “I have no problem if the Navy does their analysis and they walk in here and I just disagree with their analysis—then I’m probably going to defer to their analysis. But it’s when they come in here and they haven’t done the analysis that bothers me.”
Forbes worries about readiness, and makes it his mission to explain to other members how China is expected to have more submarines (78) operating in the Pacific Ocean than the U.S. (32) in the next eight years. And he wonders openly about the impact of massive spending cuts on America’s ability to handle armed conflict without excessive risk to its forces.
“Would you put your son and daughter on an airplane that had a disclaimer that said, ‘We’ve only done 70 percent of the maintenance on this plane, and pilots only had 70 percent of the training?’ ” he asked.
With the Budget Control Act, Forbes argued, “nobody sat down and said, ‘Here’s what we need to defend the country, and here’s what will get us there.’ ... They pulled numbers basically out of the air and said, ‘OK, now make these fit.’ You can do that in almost any other segment of the population and government. But you can’t do that in national defense, because we only have to miss one time.”
CONGRESS VERSUS CONGRESS
A relatively new challenge to the committee is the influx of freshman and sophomore Republicans who are eager to cut the deficit and don’t believe in the sacredness of the defense budget. The reaction from members steeped in defense issues is to try to explain to the newcomers the value of a strong military. “It falls on the committee to be the experts in defense and to explain to other members of the conference what these cuts mean and the importance of our defense,” McKeon said. “We’ve had some successes, I think.”
But Forbes says the committee’s veterans have not succeeded in convincing some members that defense is not a “faucet” to be turned off and on. Some of the panel’s decisions will be felt long into the future. “If it’s a bad decision, 10 years from now we’ll be paying price tags from it,” he said. “If it’s a good decision we’ll be getting the benefits.... It’s hard to convince people who are just focused on the budget only that if we cut a dollar today it may cost me $10 next year.”
Many of these splits are within the committee’s Republican majority. While hawks such as McKeon and Forbes denounced the first round of cuts from the Budget Control Act, sophomore Rep. Austin Scott of Georgia is comfortable with them, believing defense officials when they say the military can manage them safely. Although he’s against sequestration, he believes the defense budget can absorb more cuts, through better efficiencies and burden-sharing with other countries. “I might lose some friends at the Pentagon for saying this, but I think we could be streamlining the Pentagon, get them to be more efficient through the processes that occur in that building,” Scott said.
Sophomore Rep. Mo Brooks, R-Ala., said the only reason the United States has the world’s premier military is that the country had the ability to pay for it. That has changed, and now Brooks wants the U.S. to reduce its mission scope. “I don’t believe that America can financially afford to be the police cop on every street corner in the world,” he said. “We no longer have the financial resources to do that.” Brooks was against getting involved in Libya’s conflict, for instance, and he believes Japan, China, India, and Europe need the Persian Gulf oil shipping lanes kept open more than the U.S. does. “Why is it that America has the overwhelming financial obligation to protect those shipping lanes when some of these other nations are more capable of assisting us to a much greater degree?”
Referring to a statement often repeated by former Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Mike Mullen, Brooks said, “The No. 1 threat to America’s national security … is our deficit and debt.”
Some of the panel’s policy disagreements are along party lines, such as the battle over the East Coast missile defense site. Rep. Mike Turner, R-Ohio, chairman of the Tactical Air and Land Forces Subcommittee, is trying to revive a plan hatched by committee Republicans last year to add an East Coast missile shield to intercept a potential strike from North Korea or Iran if systems in Alaska and on the West Coast fail. Turner and other Republicans, through an amendment to the authorization bill, wanted to direct $140 million toward building the third interceptor site by 2018.
But the subcommittee’s ranking member, Rep. Loretta Sanchez, D-Calif., isn’t buying it. She and Turner have a good relationship, having moved from one subcommittee to another together. They even visited each other’s districts during election season. But Sanchez does not believe the technology for such a site is mature enough to warrant the expense. “[Rep. Turner] said to me, ‘You’re in California, you already have defenses,’ ” Sanchez said. “I’m looking at him like, ‘Dude, it doesn’t work.’ ”
In the end, Turner and his colleagues won that argument, and the committee moved on. After debate on a host of issues that lasted past 2 a.m. last week, the committee passed the full authorization bill 59-2. (The full chamber is moving to pass it this week.) That, by many accounts, is the beauty of House Armed Services. Democratic and Republican aides share the same suite, take meetings together, develop legislation together. "When we go to markup, everybody will already know what's in the bill," Majority Staff Director Bob Simmons said. "There's no, 'Here's what we slipped in here that you're going to hate.' We have a standing agreement that if it's controversial, it must be amended in the bill."
Everyone gets his or her say, everyone gets a vote, and the legislation eventually passes. As Sanchez acknowledged, “[Turner has] got the votes on his side, but that’s a fact of life.”
SLOW LOSS OF POWER
Some say, however, that the committee has seen its influence atrophy since the advent of term limits for chairmen in the 1990s (a Republican initiative) and the increasing dominance of the House leadership when it comes to setting the chamber’s agenda.
A whopping 86 percent of National Journal’s National Security Insiders, polled for this issue, believe that House Armed Services is not as powerful as it used to be. Two-thirds say Congress does not exercise oversight of the executive branch’s national security programs effectively. One Insider said the chairmanship’s post has been “emasculated” by the changes in the chamber. “There was a time when the chairman was someone to be feared,” another said. “No more.”
The Armed Services Committee has by many accounts become more partisan as Congress as a whole has become more polarized. When Republicans took control of the House in 2010, dozens of freshmen rode in on a tea-party wave, committed to furthering conservative principles. The makeup of the Democratic Caucus has also been shifting. Some say the loss of conservative, defense-oriented Democrats from states such as Mississippi, Missouri, Texas, and Virginia on the committee has pulled the minority to the left. In particular, Insiders said the absence of former Chairman Ike Skelton, D-Mo., who lost his seat in 2010 after 17 terms, has altered the panel. “We’ve become less conservative,” Smith said.
Other experts say the committee’s structure is an obstacle to crafting an overarching vision for the country’s national security and helping the Pentagon achieve it. “The committee has become too big,” said John Hamre, president of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, and a former deputy Defense secretary and comptroller in the Clinton administration. “When you have a committee of that size, how do you get an honest exchange?”
Hamre also believes the committee’s mission has changed, as evidenced by the authorization bills. In 1984, when Hamre first started working on the Senate Armed Services Committee, the entire authorization act passed by the chamber was seven pages; last year’s bill was about 1,200 pages. “That shows a preoccupation with detail, not a mastery of governing,” he said. “When you think your power is putting in 900 provisions, you’re now competing against the executive branch at the colonel level … not at the secretary of Defense level.”
Hamre said the House and Senate Armed Services committees have lost their focus to shape the policies that guide the Pentagon. “The bills are too big; the reports are too big,” he said. “They’re supposed to be the board of directors for the national security of the country, but instead we’re seeing lots of attention to line items in the budget, and it’s the wrong focus.”
This article appears in the June 13, 2013 edition of NJ Daily as Major Battles in House Armed Services.