Frank Oliveri, CQ Today
The Democratic side of the House’s top defense policy panel will undergo one of the most radical overhauls in its history when the 112th Congress opens, after elections and a retirement swept from their ranks at least a century of defense expertise.
Three of the top six most senior Democratic members of the House Armed Services Committee lost elections, while one retired and another likely will seek a recount for a race in which he is slightly behind. Once the dust settles on this election year, Democrats stand to lose their four most senior defense leaders.
In the long run, the tumult is likely to transform this traditionally bipartisan panel — where conservative Democrats often were ideologically close to their GOP counterparts — into a more partisan body as members wrestle with two wars and a divisive debate over defense priorities under immense fiscal pressure.
But how this loss of leadership ultimately shapes the entire panel will not be completely clear until the Democratic Steering Committee appoints a new leader in the coming weeks, and that person selects a cadre of ranking members for each subcommittee.
Even so, experts from both sides of the aisle said that while debate likely will become more intense — if not vitriolic — they are confident that both Democrats and Republicans will place the lives and concerns of military service members above partisan infighting to ensure the defense policy bill is reported out of committee each year.
Rudy deLeon, a former staff director of the House panel who now works at the Center for American Progress in Washington, a liberal think tank, said the annual defense authorization bill has been an important piece of legislation for national security and also Congress.
“It is one of the few authorization processes that has remained intact as budget policy and practices have changed in Congress,” he said. “It is a very important legislative vehicle for Congress on national security policy and it would be most unfortunate if that process were lost.”
DeLeon stressed that for many members of the House, the defense policy panel is one of the few places in which partisanship takes a back seat to national concerns and work actually gets done on a regular basis in a somewhat harmonious fashion.
Several Republicans staffers, past and present, agreed that despite the likelihood of a greater ideological polarization on the panel, members will work hard to ensure the process does not suffer.
“What most of us who have served on the committee pride ourselves on is that despite constituent interests and the politics outside the committee, it has been bipartisan,” said Jeff Green, a former Republican staff director of the Armed Services Readiness subcommittee and currently president of JA Green Inc., a consulting firm. Lawmakers “do put those partisan concerns largely aside when they get down to debating national security,” he added.
Professional staff, which often have served both parties’ leadership, also help lawmakers navigate policy challenges and help maintain continuity, he said.
DEVASTATION AT THE TOP
The loss of panel chairman Ike Skelton of Missouri, subcommittee chairmen Gene Taylor of Mississippi and Vic Snyder of Arkansas, and John M. Spratt Jr. of South Carolina, affects the Democrats in two important ways: These are the most experienced members when it comes to national security and they are the most conservative Democratic members on the panel.
“Their absence really changes the composition of the Democratic side,” said Todd Harrison, a senior defense analyst at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments.
Skelton was an original author of the landmark Goldwater-Nichols law (PL 99-433) in 1986, which institutionalized great cooperation among the military services.
Spratt, a highly accomplished academic, attorney, banker and businessman, is considered one of the Democrats’ best bridges to the House GOP and led one of the first comprehensive reviews of the U.S. nuclear weapons infrastructure. The review created a baseline from which President Ronald Reagan entered into nuclear weapons talks with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev.
Taylor became one of the foremost authorities on the panel regarding naval power and shipbuilding.
In addition, Solomon P. Ortiz of Texas is trailing by about 800 votes in the race for his seat. Should he lose after a recount, there would be no Democrat on the panel who served during the Cold War, which ended with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.
“Those are members who have lots of bipartisan national security experience under their belt,” deLeon said.
As it stands, 12 of the 37 Democrats on the panel will be gone in the 112th Congress. Three of them, including Ortiz, hang in limbo while their races remain unsettled.
The Democrats who replace them will have less experience and likely will be more left-leaning, but senior congressional aides note that history has shown liberal lawmakers working well with their GOP counterparts. They cited former Rep. Ronald Dellums of California, who chaired the panel from 1993 to early 1995, and former Rep. Les Aspin of Wisconsin, who chaired the panel from 1985 to 1993, as particularly effective in working with their Republican counterparts to pass defense policy bills.
TRYING TIMES TEST BIPARTISANSHIP
While lawmakers are expected to place emphasis on reporting out and advocating for the defense authorization bill, there have been notable fissures in the panel this year over issues relating to defense spending, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and social policy, including the repeal of the military ban on openly gay servicemembers and the ban on abortions being performed at military facilities.
DeLeon said bipartisanship should not preclude vigorous debate, and Democrats on the panel should pose tough questions in debating President Obama’s war strategy. House Democrats have been reluctant supporters of the president’s Afghanistan strategy, pushing for a quick exit. Republicans, however, have opposed the July 2011 deadline for the beginning of a withdrawal from Afghanistan and also the perceived cap on the number of troops there.
Furthermore, faced with severe budget pressures, Democrats also will fight to include the defense budget, which represents more than 50 percent of discretionary spending controlled by Congress, when considering cuts. Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates has called for only about 1 percent growth in defense spending annually over the next five years, but bills being considering in both the Senate and the House would reduce defense spending in fiscal 2011.
“Basically, if you are losing staunch [Democratic] supporters of defense and defense budgets, that brings into question whether the slight increases will actually come to fruition,” Harrison said.
But deLeon said Democrats need “to make sure there is the proper balance for defense priorities as the Congress deals with the deficit, tax cuts and the next-generation defense requirements. If you are on the Armed Services Committee, you want to make sure the troops are taken care of, and have the debate between current and future military needs, knowing it is a much tighter budget environment that we are entering into.”
Caps on defense spending will be set by the Budget Committee. It will be up to the Armed Services Committee to shape defense priorities within those numbers.
“I think members have a keen awareness that what makes the Armed Services one of the most powerful committees is their ability to place men and women in uniform above all else,” Green said. “It is a culture unlike anything I have seen.”