California Rep. Buck McKeon Takes Over Armed Services Committee
Congressman Howard “Buck” McKeon, a Republican representing Santa Clarita, CA, took over as chair of the House Armed Services Committee on Wednesday. McKeon will push against proposals to slash defense spending, going against the Obama administration and a rising tide of members in his own party who are calling for cuts in military funding in order to reduce the budget deficit.
Obama’s deficit commission last year proposed, among other things, a $100 billion reduction in defense spending. Defense Secretary Robert Gates initially denounced the idea, saying it would be catastrophic for national security. He compared the proposal to using a meat axe instead of a scalpel.
McKeon will lead the effort to increase the flow of money to the defense budget and convince the public that such increases are necessary. That means facing pressure from those within his own party like Tom Coburn and Rand Paul in the Senate who support spending cuts and a voting public that has become both increasingly weary of war and concerned about the deficit.
"If they're actually talking about cutting back on the top line for the defense department, and cutting back on the troops or cutting back on the things we provide our troops, then I have a real problem with that," McKeon said in a conference following his swearing-in ceremony.
Some see this stance as a contradiction with the Republicans' pledge for fiscal responsibility. The wave of Republicans that took control of the House of Representatives in November ran with the promise to reduce government spending.
“He does not place fiscal conservatism ahead of his support of military spending,” said Christopher Preble, Director of Foreign Policy at the CATO Institute. “So for someone like McKeon, he sees his role and he believes it’s appropriate to increase military spending even in the face of the rising tide, even within his own party, to reign in defense spending.”
The cuts to the Department of Defense, which Gates is expected to announce Thursday, is expected to include reductions in inefficiency and cuts to weapons programs, which will likely include ending the $13 billion program to develop the amphibious Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle. The cuts would not directly affect war spending.
The current Department of Defense budget, at over $700 billion, is nearly double what it was before the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, and is higher than the $600 billion budget at the height of President Reagan’s Cold War push, adjusted for inflation.
However, McKeon does not agree with the deficit commission's recommendation to cut down on military funding, the largest component of discretionary spending in the federal budget.
"That's something I am really not in support of, especially when we're fighting two wars, to balance the budget on our troops. That's something I just can't stand for," he said.
He argued that the money saved by eliminating inefficiencies in the way the Pentagon spends tax dollars should be reinvested in defense-related projects and not used to reduce the deficit.
"I feel like it's really important that we look after how the money is spent by the Pentagon and the defense establishment... We need to find those savings. And I want to keep them in the defense department to build something, buy something, provide something for the troops more important than things we eliminate."
McKeon argued against the deficit commission’s recommendations in November, citing a congressional report that called for greater military investment because of “the aging of the inventories and equipment used by the services, the decline in the size of the Navy, escalating personnel entitlements, overhead and procurement costs, and the growing stress on the force.”
“A defense budget in decline portends an America in decline. It will undermine our ability to project power, strengthen our adversaries and weaken our alliances," McKeon said.
Lawrence Korb of the Center for American Progress said that the facts do not support McKeon’s conclusion that the military cannot afford the cuts.
“Obama’s projected baseline budget is higher over the next ten years than it was over the last ten, so the idea that you can’t cut it is ridiculous,” he said. “If you look at the baseline budget and you put it in inflation-adjusted dollars, right now in 2011 it’s higher than at the peak of the Reagan buildup.”
He points to the argument that the nation’s budgetary problems are the most serious threat to Americans. Admiral Mike Mullen, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has called the national debt “our biggest national security threat.”
McKeon easily won reelection in Nov. with 60 percent of the vote. Unsurprisingly, much of his campaign was funded by defense-related political action committees and defense aerospace corporations such as Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman. His campaign received $314,000 from the defense industry, according to Open Secrets. Lockheed Martin contributed $51,000, which is more than it gave to any other congressional candidate this election cycle.
McKeon was also one of the voices who resisted the recent repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, the policy that prohibited gays and lesbians from serving openly in the armed services, calling the push for repeal during the lame duck Congress an “affront to the military.”
In response to the Obama administration’s recent review of the Afghanistan war, which cited areas of progress but remained cautiously optimistic about the possibility of withdrawing troops by July 2011, McKeon called on Gen. David Petraeus to give his own analysis of the report.
Preble said such testimony would likely not yield much information about the long-term success of the war.
“He’s going to want to focus on fairly short-term, recent evidence of success and progress, but really not asking the long-term question which is, how long is this going to take, how much is this going to cost, and what does victory look like when we’re done,” Preble said.