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HASC’s Thornberry on Sequestration, Military Budgets and Pentagon Oversight

Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-Texas)

Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-Texas)

The new chairman of the House Armed Services Committee on Tuesday stressed the need for Congress and the administration to work together to put an end to the automatic across-the-board budget cuts the federal government is facing in the coming fiscal year and to build an “efficient, effective and effective” military.

“The problem with sequestration is not primarily about numbers and statistics. It is about whether we have the capability to do what the nation needs and the times demand. It is also very much about the increased danger that comes from diminished training, aging equipment, and a tempo of operations that stretches our people and their families too far.” said Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-Texas), speaking on Tuesday at the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington think-tank.

Speaking ahead of President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address, he said that means going beyond agreement among members of the House Armed Services Committee and the Senate Armed Services Committee—to sell colleagues in both chambers on why sequestration must go in order for that bill can pass both houses and be sent to the president for his signature.

“The Armed Services Committee alone can’t fix it,” he said.

Thornberry, in answer to a question about what capabilities the United States needs but now lacks said, “Just the sheer number of ships is a big deal. . . . There is an importance to quantity.”

In his remarks he cited a number of instances when Congress used its constitutional prerogative to overturn an administration proposal.

“The Navy included no money in this year’s budget request to refuel [USS] George Washington, a carrier with 25 years of service left,” he said.

Touching on the administration’s call for a new round of Base Realignment and Closures (BRAC) last year, Thornberry said that savings still haven’t been realized from the last one, 10 years earlier.

“If we give up a base, if we give up a range, it’s gone forever,” he said in answer to a question.

In those instances, and in others, such as keeping the production line open in the only plant in the United States that can build M1A1 Abrams main battle tanks, Congress performed “exactly the way the Founding Fathers intended our system to work.”

Recently, the Pentagon sent 100 of those tanks to Europe in response to Russians moves in Ukraine, he noted.

“Some people,” he added, “expect lawmakers to just cut the check and not ask many questions.” Congress also should not be a rubber stamp for administration proposals because “it is the branch of government most responsible for the character and contours of our military.”

Thornberry said that fair oversight of the Department of Defense is what he, as chairman, will be working toward. To the Joint Chiefs he said that he and committee members “expect you to shoot straight with us” because “we have to have that information” to do what is required of Congress.

With the president’s budget expected to be delivered to Congress next month, the chairman said he had no “magic number” as to what the defense top line should be, and he warned against those on Capitol Hill who set such a figure in dealing with a $523 billion budget cap. “Be really careful about drawing red lines.”

As for using the emergency spending bills, called Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) funds, to fix shortfalls in the base budget, Thornberry said, “That’s not a good way to run a railroad.”

Last year, as vice chairman of the committee, he was tasked to look at acquisition reform and broader questions of how to improve Pentagon efficiency. Calling the acquisition system “gummed up,” he said in answer to a question, that he and Sen. John McCain, (R-Ariz.)— chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee—had spoken several times about how to proceed and was very optimistic progress could be made. “We have a group of folks (including himself; McCain; Ashton Carton, secretary of defense nominee; and Frank Kendall, the DOD’s top acquisition official) who want to get things done.”

As Thornberry sees it, the first principle in reform should be first “try to do no harm” and then “trying to make some things better,” but keeping at it over time rather than producing a 2,000-page bill.

He praised the vision of one of his predecessors, Rep. Carl Vinson (D-GA), in the 1930s when the threats from Japan and Germany were growing and pressure was strong to spend federal money on the New Deal, as an example of Congress getting it right.

“In the mid-’30s, three large ship hulls were laid down. Those three hulls became three ships. And those three ships—the carriers Enterprise, Hornet and Yorktown—sank four Japanese carriers at the Battle of Midway.”

“If Vinson were here today,” Thornberry said, “he might find a very familiar political landscape and very similar frustrations: The deliberate ignorance of danger, the want of strategic forethought, and infinite demands to spend money elsewhere.”