Big Changes in Store for Defense Panels

November 12, 2010

Government Relations Update - Defense

A big victory for Republicans on Election Day will have far-reaching consequences for the 112th Congress, but nowhere will the changes be more apparent than the House Armed Services Committee.

At least five of the most senior Democrats on HASC will depart, with three losing reelection, one retirement, and one race that is still too close to call, but leans in the Republican’s favor. At the top of the list of departing members is current Chairman Ike Skelton (D-MO), who lost reelection to Vicky Hartzler. Skelton, who first took office in 1977, was widely seen as a moderate member of the Democratic caucus, but was swept up in the Republican wave. The second most senior Democrat, Rep. John Spratt (D-SC), also lost reelection. Rep. Solomon Ortiz (D-TX), who was considered the favorite to assume the ranking member position in the next Congress, currently trails his Republican opponent by 800 votes, but is demanding a recount. The fourth-ranking Democrat, Rep. Gene Taylor (D-MS) also lost reelection.

Rep. Silvestre Reyes (D-TX), the current Chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, would be the most senior Democrat and is likely to make a run at the HASC ranking member slot. Rep. Vic Snyder’s (D-AR) would be next on the list, but retired, meaning Reyes would face potential competition from the seventh or eighth most senior Democrats—Reps. Adam Smith of Washington or Loretta Sanchez of California.

On the Republican side, current Ranking Member Howard "Buck" McKeon will assuredly take over the gavel, and most of the current subcommittee ranking members will chair a subcommittee in the next Congress.

With the departure of so many senior members, a number of Democrats will move up the committee’s leadership ladder. Twelve, and potentially up to 15, current HASC Democrats will not be a part of the next Congress. Additionally, the Republican control of the House means the current 37-25 member advantage Democrats enjoy will flip in the 112th. A number of the more than eighty newly-elected Republicans will certainly be jockeying for a position on the committee. Both of these facts mean that the committee as a whole will be less experienced and likely more partisan.

The Senate Armed Services Committee will see less fluctuation. Although a Republican net pick-up of six Senate seats means Democrats may lose a senator or two from each committee, the committee leadership structure will remain intact. Sen. Carl Levin (D-MI) will continue as Chairman and Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) will remain Ranking Member. Departing Senators include Sens. Roland Burris (D-IL), Ted Kaufman (D-DE), Carte Goodwin (D-WV), George Lemieux (R-FL), and Evan Bayh (D-IN).

Deficit Commission Draft Report Contains Big Defense Cuts

As expected, the President’s deficit reduction commission included cuts in the defense budget as part of a plan to significantly reduce the nation’s deficit. However, the tremendous size of the cuts shocked many in the defense industry, with the draft recommendation to cut $100 billion from DoD.

President Obama established the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform in order to take a hard look at reducing the country’s deficit and stabilizing its debt. The final report from the committee is due December 1, and recommendations must be supported by 14 of the 18 members of the panel, an unlikely scenario for some of the more dramatic proposals. The November 10 draft proposal was created by the panels co-chairman—former Republican Senator Alan Simpson and former Clinton Administration official Erskine Bowles. While Democrats were quick to assail the recommendations for social security and domestic program cuts, Republicans thus far have held their fire. Congress will be under pressure to reduce the deficit, but defense programs have generally been seen as sacred.

Weapons funding would be reduced by $55 billion by 2015. Drastic cuts in the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter Program are on the table, with the co-chairman recommending termination of the Marine Corps’ variant and halving the purchase of F-35’s by the Navy and Air Force, yielding $27 billion in savings. Several programs would be cancelled completely, including the Joint Light Tactical Vehicle, the Joint Tactical Radio System, the Ground Combat Vehicle, and the Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle. Procurement of the MH-60 helicopter and the V-22 Osprey would also be reduced. The proposal notes that many of these programs would only be delayed beyond 2015, after technical and requirement issues are resolved.

$28 billion of Defense Secretary Gates’ $100 billion in potential efficiencies savings would go directly towards paying down the deficit, rather than modernization accounts as Gates had planned. Further, the draft report recommends cutting the number of overseas bases by a third and doubling the reduction of Pentagon contractors proposed by the SECDEF.

2011 Defense Authorization Talks Break Down

The outlook for passage of the 2011 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) remains murky, as unofficial compromise discussions between the House and Senate Armed Services Committees during the recess have been halted. If Congress fails to pass the NDAA before the end of the session, it will be the first time in more than 40 years that they will have failed to do so.

Both Democrats and Republicans on the two committees have been working throughout the election recess to hammer out differences between the competing versions of the bill. Based on a very short session when lawmakers return next week, committee staff had hoped to finalize as many provisions of the bill as possible. However, Republicans on Monday decided to walk out of the negotiations because of Democrats insistence on including a repeal of the Pentagon’s don’t ask, don’t tell policy banning openly gay members from serving in the military and the potential inclusion of the DREAM Act providing a path to citizenship for the illegal immigrant minors who graduate from U.S. high schools.

The don’t ask, don’t tell policy has caused a firestorm of controversy over the past six months. The House Armed Services Committee’s version of the bill did not include the repeal, but it was later added when it passed the full House. Some members have called for removal of the repeal in order to assure passage of the NDAA, but thus far have not made any progress. Senator John McCain has threatened to filibuster the bill if it includes the provision before the Pentagon issues its final report on the topic on December 1. DoD officials have indicated that the report will recommend a full repeal of the DADT policy, but the short congressional timeline after Dec. 1 is pressuring Congress to act sooner.

The DREAM Act is another hurdle that shutdown the negotiations. Included in the Senate’s version of the NDAA, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) made a campaign promise to pass the legislation. It remains to be seen whether Reid insists it be included in the defense authorization or whether he will offer the DREAM Act as a stand-alone bill in the lame-duck session.

Nominations

On November 18, the Senate Armed Services Committee will consider the following nominations:

  • Air Force Gen. Claude Kehler, to be commander of U.S. Strategic Command
  • Army Gen. Carter Ham, to be commander of U.S. Africa Command

Quote of the Week

"Our soldiers today are fighting different wars than their fathers and grandfathers fought. They’re suffering different wounds. But our obligation remains the same--to train and equip those who we send into harm’s way and to give them every bit of care that they’ve earned and deserve when they return home."

Vice President Joe Biden, at a Veterans Day ceremony in Arlington National Cemetery honoring those who served.

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