Military Update: Lawmaker's points spur refusal of Rumsfeld plan
Infrequently, on Capitol Hill, a freshman legislator with gumption can have the impact of a wily congressional veteran. It happened Tuesday when the House Armed Services Committee narrowly derailed Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's plan to win new, expansive authority over flag and general officer rotations, tour lengths and age limits.
Republican John Kline, four months into his first term representing Minnesota's 2nd District, drew upon 25 years of experience as a Marine Corps officer to attack what he saw as frail logic and irresponsibly fast pace by Bush administration's plans to "transform" senior officer management.
Fellow Republicans Jo Ann Davis of Virginia and Jim Gibbons of Nevada, quietly joined with Kline and committee Democrats to support an amendment from Rep. Ellen Tauscher, D-Calif., that knocked from the 2004 defense bill provisions to overhaul senior officer appointments.
In criticizing them, Kline risks a disloyalty rap from the Bush administration. Rumsfeld and staff had hoped swift victory in Iraq would lead to swift enactment of personnel management reforms through a Republican-led Congress. They would start by with authority to allow the most talented senior officers, active and reserve, to serve longer careers.
At the subcommittee level days earlier, Tauscher's amendment was defeated on a straight partisan vote. The Republican majority had accepted Rumsfeld's call to allow up to 40-year careers; raise retired pay, accordingly, to a new maximum of 100 percent of basic pay; end time-in-service ceilings on flag officers; raise their age ceiling by several years and allow additional age deferments for the secretary of defense; relax the three-year, in-grade requirement that senior officers must meet to retire at their top rank.
Rep. John McHugh, R-N.Y., chairman of the Total Force Subcommittee, argued that these proposals were backed by a study from RAND, the respected defense think-tank. Only during full committee debate was it revealed that McHugh alone had seen the RAND report. No other member or committee staff had read it, yet all but three Republicans favored to enact the officer management initiatives.
Kline said he preferred to rely on his own poll of "every colonel and general I know, active and retired," all of whom oppose the administration's provisions. He agreed with Democrats that the package "would do several bad things" to the officer corps including age it unnecessarily, lower morale among younger officers and "politicize" senior officer appointments to the point that defense secretaries could surround themselves with "like-minded" officers, shutting out all others.
"Bright young officers with their own ideas, their own initiatives, will be deterred from pursuing those," Kline said. "This will have the effect ... of squashing dissent ... That's the opposite of what the secretary wanted to do."
A Vietnam veteran who served as military aide to Presidents Carter and Reagan, Kline said he didn't fall lock step behind the administration on officer management "because of my experience in the military. If I can't bring that to bear, why am I here?"
Though new to the armed services committee, he added, "I'm not starting at the bottom of the learning curve. I don't have to have people explain to me the officer assignment system or the difference between an Army colonel and a Navy captain."
Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., committee chairman, opposed the amendment but thanked Kline for his views, noting that they came from a "guy who carried the nuclear football [a briefcase of launch codes] for two presidents and has a deep concern about this issue."
Committee Democrats criticized Republicans for rubber stamping Defense Department recommendations after a single, poorly attended hearing with only DOD officials as witnesses. They urged that the provisions be stricken and placed in a separate bill to allow time for far more extensive review and debate. Enactment this year, conceded Kline, is unlikely.
The Senate Armed Services Committee also refused to adopt the officer management provisions, seeing a loss of Senate prerogatives for reconfirming star-rank nominees for senior posts. The House vote ensures the issue won't be revisited this year in House-Senate conference committee.
The Senate committee included in its mark up of the 2004 defense bill two new deployment pays not found in the House version of the bill. One would pay service members in South Korea a $100-a-month assignment incentive pay in recognition of dangers there without benefit of war zone tax breaks of Afghanistan, Kuwait and Iraq.
The Senate bill also would authorize a "high deployment allowance" to replace $100-a-day Personnel Tempo Pay that Congress approved several years ago but which has been suspended during the war on terrorism. Defense officials see PersTempo Pay as too costly and burdensome, requiring tracking of deployment experiences across three time thresholds. The committee agreed to a DOD proposal to replace with a less costly, sliding-scale allowance based on deployment duration or frequency.
It would pay $200 a month if deployments exceed 191 consecutive days and $300 a month after 211 consecutive days. For frequent deployments, it would pay $100 a month if total deployment exceeds 400 of the preceding 730 days, rising to a maximum of $300 a month if total deployment is 450 or more days out of the preceding 730.
Payments for duration and frequency could be combined but not to exceed $600 a month, under current service plans. In time, combined payments of up to $1,000 a month are possible under the bill.
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