Winslow Wheeler: Analysis of House Mood on Defense Cuts

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Winslow Wheeler

Below is an important and interesting analysis of John Isaacs of the Council for a Livable World of the “mood” of the House on defense issues.  I do not agree with all of the characterizations or implications (and I agree with some), but I do believe John (whom I have known professionally with respect for almost four decades) has collected some significant information.  From this and other data, I conclude:

1) No one should be surprised at the House' ambivalence on a defense issue like Libya.  It has been the hallmark of Congress for longer than I can recall to permit presidents to do as they please internationally while sniping from the sidelines and avoiding taking responsibility;

2) Congress pats itself on its own back for pretending to support frugality in the Pentagon by taking easy votes such as against the second engine for the F-35 (which SecDef Gates successfully painted as a pork program) and against a piece of the DOD funding for military bands (see below).  The size of the votes on matters that are actually significant, such as the Barney Frank/Ron Paul and the Mulvaney amendments to cut from $8.5 to $17 billion from the 2012 DOD budget, shows a new high-water mark for budget cutting in the Pentagon not seen in Congress since — by my recollection — in the mid-1980s when the so-called Military Reform Caucus and budget cutters like Chuck Grassley were fully active.

3) We should expect Congress to continue to send ambivalent messages about Libya.  Those messages, while incoherent, are an important — and discouraging — signpost to the interventionists in the White House and Congress, who reside in all sectors of the political spectrum.

4) I do not read the House's “messages” on the size of the defense budget as ambivalent. I read them as evolving and looking for leadership.  As many have pointed out already, an amendment like the Frank/Paul amendment to extract a very modest amount from the Pentagon budget would not have gotten anything like 181 yes votes in the recent past.  The defense budget hawks do not yet have a majority in the House, but that is the direction of the momentum.  What they lack the most is a leader that a majority of both the Republican and Democratic caucuses feel comfortable with and they they know they must take very seriously.  There is no telling where that leadership might come from; do not exclude its coming from the executive branch, but thus far it is not coming from there, and it has not really emerged in the House either.  The Senate will have its shot at the defense budget issue sometime soon.  There some — such as the membership of the Senate Armed Services Committee — will try to have it both ways; that will only mean that the vacuum of leadership is still looking to be filled, waiting for a real leader to show up.

That's my two cents.

John Isaacs' analysis of the “House Mood” is below; it is very much worth reading — even if you do not agree with all parts of it.

Council for a Livable World
July 11, 2011

An Analysis of the House Mood On National Security Issues
After Completion of Defense Appropriations Bill

Council for a Livable World

July 11, 2011 draft
An Analysis of the House Mood On National Security Issues
After Completion of Defense Appropriations Bill

The House of Representatives has now considered defense budget and national security issues three times[1], and it is possible to come to some conclusions.

It is more difficult to judge the Senate, which has largely avoided national security issues for more than six months.

About the House:

►While there is rising receptivity among House Members to cut the defense budget, there is no majority for that position.

►If there are to be any serious cuts in military spending, those reductions will have to be mandated in debt ceiling/budget negotiations. If the White House and leadership pressure for reduced Pentagon budgets, it will be hard for Congress to add additional money.

►The rising tide against defense spending is particularly noticeable among Republicans. A tally by Darcy Scott Martin of True Majority shows that 69 Republicans (29% of the House GOP) voted for either the Frank (D-MA) or the Mulvaney (R-SC) amendments to trim the increase in the Defense Appropriations Bill. Those 69 Republicans provide a good target list for future votes.

►But just as it was encouraging to see so many Republicans voting for these amendments, an identical portion of Democrats voted against the Frank amendment – 54 Democrats, or 29% of those voting.

►While the 181-244 vote that defeated the Frank amendment was heartening, it was still a defeat.

►Media reports after passage of the Defense Appropriations Bill mostly focused on the fact that the Pentagon had dodged a bullet (pun intended) on defense spending and that Republicans did not follow through on their rhetoric:

AP: House Boosts Military Budget In Time Of Austerity;

National Journal: House Approves Defense Spending Bill, Resists Major Funding Cuts

The Hill: Once again, the House-passed defense appropriations measure would be a win for defense firms and military personnel;

Politico: Tough House rhetoric on defense cuts so far remains just talk;

CQ Today: Despite Austerity Vibe, GOP Resists Most Defense Cuts.

►The February 2011 vote in favor of  a Rooney (R-FL) amendment cutting funds for the second F-35 engine, approved 233-198, turns out to be the exception, not the rule.

►To have a chance to succeed on the House floor, an amendment needs 1) a strong bipartisan group of sponsors, 2) real Member-to-Member work with colleagues, 3) a bipartisan group of speakers on the House floor, 4) a major campaign of outside organizations.

►Outside campaigns are hard to mount without sufficient notice and good organization In the chaos of multiple amendments on many subjects offered in many cases with little or no advance notice, it was hard to mount that kind of campaign. The Republican leadership, to its credit, has allowed a more open process for offering amendments than the Democrats had. Still, it is hard to challenge the Appropriations leadership.

►The May 26 vote of 204-215 against the McGovern (D-MA)-Jones (R-NC) Afghanistan amendment provided one of the few real opportunities for outside organizations to organize such a campaign. It helped that House Democrats were close to unanimous in support of the amendment.

►On Libya, the House delivered mixed messages. The House on Libya, is from the old show tune, Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered by the conflict. During consideration of the Appropriations Bill, the House:

►Voted 225-201 to bar assistance to the anti-government forces;

►Voted 316-111 to bar spending in violation of the War Powers Act;

►Voice voted to bar U.S. ground troops;

►Refused to block funding the war several times, mostly closely on a

199-229 vote against an Amash (R-MI)-Kucinich (D-OH) amendment.

►The House delivered a similar confused message on June 25, when it refused to authorize U.S. action when it rejected a Hastings (D-FL) amendment 123-295 but declined to cut off funding for the American involvement in the fighting when it rejected a Rooney (R-FL) amendment 180-238.

►As a result, the President continues to have a free hand in Libya.

►As it has through numerous conflicts since World War II, Members of Congress do not wish to be responsible for a bad outcome of a war, such as the defeat by Gaddafi of the anti-government forces.

►The Democratic Party is more “pro-Libya war” than the Republican Party in the House. Republicans voted 132-106 for the Amash-Kucinich amendment while Democrats voted 67-123 against. It is not clear how much the Republican position is anti-Libya war and how much is anti-Barack Obama.

►On Afghanistan, while close to a majority voted for a withdrawal plan in May, when presented with two amendments to cut off funding the war, the House overwhelmingly defeated a Lee (D-CA) amendment (97-322) and a Garamendi (D-CA) amendment (133-295).

►A variety of other amendments to cut the Afghanistan Infrastructure Fund, the Afghanistan Security Forces Fund, the Overseas Contingency Operations Transfer Fund or assistance to Pakistan also failed. Congress does not want to be blamed for the “loss of Afghanistan,” whatever that means.<

►The closest vote related to Afghanistan came when the House narrowly defeated a Cohen (D-TN) amendment to cut $200 million from the Afghanistan Infrastructure Fund. The vote was 210-217.

►The Cable reporter Josh Rogin nailed it in describing the splits within the Republican Party on national security issues: “The Republican Party has been deeply split or at least seriously confused about its national security identity in recent weeks. There's no consensus on how to proceed in Afghanistan, other than to say that politics should not trump national security considerations. There's no agreement on what to do in Libya, other than to blame President Barack Obama for mishandling the situation there.”

►But the Democratic Party is similarly split.

►To demonstrate its “frugality,” the House was willing, albeit by a narrow 226-201 margin, to vote for a McCollum (D-MN) amendment to cut funds for Pentagon bands by $124.8 million, with 90 Republicans joining 136 Democrats to pass the amendment.

Click here for a more complete list of key votes on the Defense Appropriations Bill.

John Isaacs
Executive Director
Council for a Livable World & Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation
322 4th Street, NE
Washington, DC 20002
Phone (202) 543-4100 x.2222

Phi Beta Iota:  Not mentioned in the fact that neither Congress nor the Executive is doing reality-based or fact-based decision making.  Were all of the claims of the Pentagon, and the services in particular, to be subject to intelligence with integrity, it would be possible to very rapidly cut the defense budget in half.  The confusion–and  the lack of  leadership–can be directly connected to a lack of intelligence (decision-support) and the integrity to use it.

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