Rep. Howard P. “Buck” McKeon (R-Calif.) at times seems to be a lonely voice in the wilderness, one of the few elected leaders devoted to warning his countrymen about the dangerous world and imploring them to maintain a robust military. As the chairman of the House Armed Service Committee, he’s doing his best to hold back the stampede of elected officials anxious to chop defense.
McKeon is trim, courtly in his demeanor. He speaks deliberately and with precision, in many ways a mirror image of the senior officers with whom he regularly interacts. When we met in his office in the Rayburn building yesterday, he had just returned from two votes following the speech of Israeli Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu to a joint session of Congress. I ask him about the reception Netanyahu received. McKeon is not loquacious, but he, as if it were obvious to all, says, “Well, every other word he got a standing ovation. He was dynamic, masterful.”
His own efforts center on preserving spending for a military continually stretched thinner and thinner. Earlier this month his committee, by a 60-1 vote, passed authorization for $553 billion in defense spending for fiscal year 2012, which matched the president’s budget. McKeon acknowledged there will be amendments, but he’s confident of “strong support” in the House. Still, he’s not pleased with the pinch on defense and is even more concerned about an additional $400 million in cuts the president has ordered up.
The pressure is for less and less spending, but McKeon makes clear that he would “like to see a higher top-line number.” He concedes that “every dollar is precious,” but is concerned about “cutting back to the degree we have in the last few years.” He’s visibly irritated that the White House demanded Secretary of Defense Robert Gates produce substantial cuts last year, only to ask for another $400 million after Gates dutifully found the savings. He is blunt that when you ask for cuts of the magnitude the president wants, “it has to affect the troops.” He tells me that he’s spoken to one serviceman who has had nine deployments, the implication being that we are already making enormous demands of our troops.
The problem, says McKeon, is that with all of these cuts he sees “no cutting back” of the military’s mission. “We have 19 ships in Japan,” he says before listing the slew of other commitments and challenges (Iraq, Afghanistan, China, North Korea and Russia, which he says isn’t “totally peaceful”). If we cut this much spending, he warns that then we are “going to need to change the mission.” It’s evident he’s got some concerns about the administration’s priorities. We’re active in Libya, but “there is nothing in Syria,” he says. He looks grim, if not puzzled, by the administration’s method of deciding when and where to intervene.
In some cases, Congress has made things worse. He points to its decision not to reinstate funding on the so-called “second engine” for the joint striker force, leaving Pratt & Whitney as the sole contractor for the multi-billion-dollar project. McKeon announced earlier this month that he would add language to the defense bill to permit two competitors (GE and Rolls-Royce) to self-fund their work in 2012 to remain in competition with Pratt & Whitney. McKeon explains he did this for two reasons. First, he thinks it is essential for there to be competition rather than a sole source contract. “What if Pratt & Whitney want to hike the price? We have no position of strength [now] to negotiate anything else.” Aside from price, he is also concerned that the Pratt &Whitney engine is going to be used by “95 percent of the striker force.” He says rhetorically, “What if there is a problem with that engine?”
He is mild in his criticism of his colleagues who saw the elimination of the second engine program as a way to achieve some immediate savings. He said, “The vote against the second engine was early [for freshmen].” He is hopeful that they will see the long-term savings in maintaining a competitive bidding system.
He says his committee has always “worked hard to keep a good relationship” with the Pentagon and is confident that this will continue under Leon Panetta, who’s been nominated to replace Gates. He says, “If I were a senator I would ask [in the confirmation hearings] how far he thinks we can cut defense and maintain a robust defense.” His message is clear: The administration’s budget doesn't match its national security policy.
At the end of the year, the last 50,000 U.S. troops are due to leave Iraq unless the two countries make a new agreement. The Iraqis aren’t asking and we aren’t offering to do so yet. McKeon suggests that the solution is obvious: “Someone tell them if they ask, we’ll agree.” That’s not happened yet. However, with a very large number of civilians remaining, McKeon asks, “Who’s going to protect all of them?” He doesn’t know whether the Iraqi forces are yet up to that. He says, “It would be disastrous if everything we sacrificed for is lost.”
As for Afghanistan, he’s heard nothing from the White House or Pentagon on the size of the July drawdown of troops. He says that he saw “a lot of progress” in a recent visit. If such gains continue, he says, “Maybe we can be out by 2014.” He hopes that any decision to cut back on troops is made based on military needs and that “they don’t just pick a number.”
In a Congress with many new faces and brash partisans, McKeon harkens back to another era when serious, hawkish lawmakers made it their life’s work to master the intricacies of the Pentagon and look to long-term interests in defending the country. He certainly has his work cut out for him in this political environment, with an administration eager to shovel money from the Pentagon to domestic spending and an odd combination of fiscal conservatives and liberals who would like nothing better than to hack away at the Pentagon. McKeon seems determined to make sure that doesn’t happen.