Dayton, Ohio, lobbyist in Washington says Wright-Patterson Air Force Base has strong support
Springfield News-Sun, Ohio January 8, 2024
(Tribune News Service) — Wright-Patterson Air Force Base has the attention of President Joe Biden and Congress, putting it in a strong position to continue getting needed federal support as long as divisions in Congress do not lead to defense budget cuts, according to Michael Gessel, the Dayton region’s top lobbyist in Washington D.C.
Gessel, 69, is vice president for federal government programs for the Dayton Development Coalition. He has 45 years of experience working in Congress or advocating for regional priorities with members of Congress and federal agencies, keeping a strong focus on Wright-Patterson Air Force Base and other federal facilities in the region.
“As far as I know, I am the only lobbyist in Washington whose full-time job is looking after the Dayton region day in and day out,” Gessel said.
He spoke with this newspaper about the current political landscape in Washington, D.C., and what it means for the region and the base, which has about 35,000 military and civilian employees and is the largest single site employer in the state.
The non-profit coalition is the western regional partner of JobsOhio, the state’s privatized economic development arm. The coalition also leads the the Dayton Region Priority Development and Advocacy Committee (PDAC) process, which recommends community-evaluated projects seeking government and other funding in Auglaize, Butler, Champaign, Clark, Clinton, Darke, Fayette, Greene, Mercer, Miami, Montgomery, Preble, Shelby and Warren counties.
Here is what Gessel had to say during a 90-minute interview at the Dayton Development Coalition’s headquarters in Dayton. His comments are edited for space and clarity.
What is the number one thing you hear about Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Washington?
Everybody knows Wright- Patterson. It is one of the largest military bases among any of the services. Most Air Force officers will at some time shuttle through Wright- Patterson, many of them go to the Air Force Institute of Technology on their way up. People have a great deal of respect for Wright- Patterson, and they know its value to the military.
What do you foresee for the defense budget and the region’s ability to protect and grow Wright-Patterson Air Force Base?
The defense budget is favored within Congress among both Democrats and Republicans. And so in the short term, I think we’re going to continue to see strong defense budgets. And that will bode well for Wright-Patterson Air Force Base. A strong defense budget and significant defense spending means more jobs for Wright-Patterson.
It is harder to predict, with the challenges within Congress, what kind of spending we will see in the future. We may see stable defense budgets, but stable sometimes means actually declining when you adjust for inflation, particularly the added expense of health care and for salaries.
What is the lay of the land in Washington, D.C., with this Congress and President Joe Biden’s administration?
There are always disagreements between the administration and Congress, particularly when there’s divided government. We have the U.S. House controlled by Republicans and the U.S. Senate and White House controlled by Democrats. So it’s really not that much different from previous years.
There is more contention among a few House Republicans who are pushing the House more towards unrealistic outcomes. Most of the major issues that are points of contention between the White House and Congress don’t have a direct effect on Wright-Patterson.
Spending levels are perhaps the issue that would have the greatest effect on Wright-Patterson, because when many of the conservatives in the House push for reduced spending, including reduced defense spending, that could result in making things more challenging for Wright-Patterson’s growth. Some Democrats also favor slowing down the defense budget, but overall, both parties are pretty much on board for strong defense spending.
What do you think about the current political landscape compared to how it has been in the past as far as the region’s ability to get the things we need from the feds?
In terms of our own members of Congress, we’ve never been in a stronger position. We have U.S. Rep. Mike Turner, R-Dayton, who is the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee and a senior member of the House Armed Services Committee. We have U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, who is chairman of the Senate Banking Committee, a senior member of the majority party and the president’s party. And we have U.S. Sen. J.D. Vance, R-Ohio, who has made Wright-Patterson one of his focal points.
Where we’re going to run into problems are issues that affect all federal installations and the entire federal government, including the threat of government shutdowns and the threat of continuing budget resolutions, which continue the funding at last year’s level and significantly hamper the ability of the U.S. Air Force and Wright-Patterson to do their jobs. It hurts the government all around and hurts the Air Force. It lowers morale and makes our government at all levels less effective.
And the threat of government shutdowns or continuing resolutions is probably greater now than it has been for a long time.
Should the defense budget be cut, that will significantly affect the wiggle room that we have to encourage increased funding for Wright-Patterson.
With a Congressional stalemate over the budget and looming deadlines to avoid a government shutdown, what is the status of funding for Wright-Patterson to pay for a new runway, a Sensitive Compartmented Information Facility (SCIF) for secure meetings and a new Air Force Life Cycle Management Center acquisition management complex?
In December Congress approved the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), which sets policy and authorizes, but does not appropriate funds, for defense expenditures. The NDAA directs $19.5 million toward phase five planning and design of the acquisition management complex, which is a building we have been pushing for more than 20 years. In 2001 Congress approved funding for the previous phase of the acquisition management complex and we had been unable to advance this project since, so it is a big deal to be able to get this project moving forward.
But the money doesn’t flow until the appropriations bill is passed and signed. If there’s a continuing resolution that project will not get funded. January 19 is the deadline for the first tranche of appropriations bills and February 2 for the second tranche before current funding expires.
At the moment neither SCIF construction nor the runway are directly tied up with specific congressional funding. The runway is not scheduled for construction this year so the only way that it would be affected by this year’s congressional action is that a backlog will be created if Congress failed to provide for the maintenance of Air Force and Defense Department facilities.
What is your role in lobbying for the region’s other federal infrastructure and the Dayton International Airport?
The Dayton airport is a non-federal entity that the city of Dayton and the Dayton Area Chamber of Commerce advocate for and we support those efforts. We work to support all of the federal installations in the Dayton region, including the Air National Guard Base in Springfield, and we are quite active in supporting the Dayton Veterans Affairs Medical Center and legislation that will enhance the National VA History Center located on the medical center campus. Also there is the Dayton Aviation Heritage National Historical Park.
What is the Dayton Development Coalition currently lobbying for and what do you think the outcome will be?
Expanding the facilities at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, which directly supports getting additional missions for Wright-Patterson as well as maintaining the vibrancy of the existing missions. More so than most bases, Wright-Patt is a science and technology base. It requires cutting edge research facilities in order to do its job. And so it’s a challenge to support facilities for the Air Force Research Laboratory, and other missions at Wright-Patterson.
Construction on military bases is an area where Congress gets deeply involved so this is an area that makes it very productive for us to work with our delegation. We also are working with the Air Force on an Enhanced Use Lease for Wright-Patterson land, which could support some of the missions of Wright- Patterson as well as the contractors that support the missions.
In military construction at Wright-Patt, we are looking at facilities for the Air Force Research Laboratory, the National Air and Space Intelligence Center, National Space Intelligence Center, the Air Force Institute of Technology, the medical center and the Naval Medical Research Unit-Dayton. All have construction projects in different phases that are on our radar screen.
What impact will election year 2024 have on your ability to get the region’s priorities addressed by Congress and the Biden administration?
Election years create volatility in Congress. And so in some ways, it makes it easier to enact legislation, because with an election year coming up, everyone plays their best game. And while members of Congress always work hard, they probably work a little harder during an election year. And legislation gets moved, that might otherwise have been bogged down. On the other hand, there are increased tensions, and there is more mistrust. And that can slow and stop legislation. And so it becomes a very unpredictable time.
Now, I would say that in an election year, Congress is more sensitive to the passage of a budget. They’re aware that the inability to pass a budget could reflect poorly on them at election time. And so that is an incentive. Whether that incentive will work this time, I don’t know. We’re still on the non-election budget year and we haven’t been able to get that through. So the election year budgets typically are smoother, but not always.
How do you accomplish anything given the sharp divisions within the Republican caucus in the House and brinksmanship over government shutdowns and the national debt limit?
The long-term consequences of chaos and disorder and an inability to move are potentially catastrophic. We could see the United States’ credit rating dropping, which will raise interest rates and increase the deficit. We will see the United States lose stature in the world and lose its ability to influence world proceedings. We will see a decay of the government as morale drops and as quality candidates no longer seek employment with the federal government.
The short term effect is a little bit more hit or miss and is based on bill by bill. One way or another we will get funding for the government this fiscal year, but there may be a shutdown. Eventually the money will flow to Wright-Patterson Air Force Base. If there’s a shutdown and a furlough it will cause a lot of inconvenience for Wright-Patterson employees and other people, as well as the gasoline stations and grocery stores that serve Wright-Patt employees. But we’ll muddle through that.
Is there any talk of threats to Wright-Patterson, such as cutting back on funding projects or shifting missions elsewhere?
For the moment, most of the talk is possible expansion of missions, or missions coming to Wright-Patterson. But we are always concerned and always watchful. Because when we cease to become watchful, that’s when there will be talk, followed by action. And we would prefer to not even get to the talk stage.
As Space Force continues to develop its own culture, we are watching the missions of Wright-Patterson that serve both Air Force and Space Force to either keep the Space Force part at Wright-Patterson, as a separate organization, or to maintain the Space Force function within the existing organization. For example, Space Force is sending students to the Air Force Institute of Technology, so that’s a good sign. And the Air Force Research Laboratory currently conducts research for both Air Force and Space Force.
Is Wright-Patterson on President Biden’s radar? And if so, what will that mean for our region?
In March Jill Biden came out to Wright-Patterson to support an initiative that helps improve the quality of life for military families. And when Senator Brown promoted the Space Command being located in Ohio he worked directly with the White House. White House military advisors, undoubtedly, are very familiar with Wright-Patterson as the National Space Intelligence Center prepares secret briefings that end up on the President’s desk. So the White House and the President work with Wright-Patterson, and it’s on the radar screen. We certainly hope that means that they will be supportive of Wright-Patterson.
How helpful have the region’s U.S. House members and the two Ohio U.S. senators been?
They are essential. We in the community like to think that the Air Force listens to us carefully and pays attention to our requests. What gives those requests teeth is the influence, the power and the will of our members of Congress. Some of that you see through legislation that they offer, but an awful lot of that is behind-the-scenes discussions.
The members of Congress meet regularly with top Air Force leaders and defense leaders. Many of those meetings are not public. And those are critical. It’s that trust, it’s that rapport between the members and the defense department leaders that advances Wright-Patterson.
What can local policy makers and leaders do to assist you in your efforts?
Work together. There is nothing so powerful as members of both parties on both sides of Congress, working together, pulling the same cart in the same direction. And when we have the members of Congress working with the community we’re unstoppable.
(c)2024 Springfield News-Sun, Ohio
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