New armed services committee chair puts White House on notice
By TOM PHILPOTT | SPECIAL TO STARS AND STRIPES Published: December 27, 2018
“Constant misinformation from the president is a real problem in a democratic society, and we in Congress have got to do our best to hold him accountable,” said Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash., who will assume chairmanship of the House Armed Services Committee in January.
Smith was reacting to a tally of inaccurate claims by President Donald Trump, in speeches or tweets, on issues military people and veterans care about, such as the size of pay raises, the purpose of border deployments, assertions of readiness in disarray before he became president, and his premature claims of expanded health care choices for veterans who rely on the VA medical system.
The latest occurred during Trump’s visit with U.S. troops in Iraq on Dec. 26, when he said again, as he did in May, that “the big pay raise you just got” — 2.4 percent in January, a 2.6 percent increase to take effect next month — was the first raise in “more than 10 years,” according to a White House transcript.
Trump added, falsely, that the military raise was 10 percent.
On Dec. 12, following an hourlong press breakfast hosted by the Defense Writers Group, Smith warned that a new Democratic majority in the House no longer will allow Trump misstatements targeting troops to slide.
At the breakfast, Smith said the House committee with Democratic majority will resist some declared presidential plans for the Department of Defense, including creation of a Space Force and a 5 percent bump in defense spending for 2019, which Trump embraced this month, reversing an earlier call for cuts.
On the Space Force, Smith said there is “bipartisan concern about creating a separate branch of the military.” Even Defense Department officials, he said, weren’t “crazy about a Space Force until the president decided we had to have one. … But they know that this isn’t the best way to do this.”
He conceded a need to place a greater emphasis on space because “the Air Force hasn’t done as good a job managing our space assets as they could. Difficulties we’ve had with Space Launch has been a good example of why a different approach is needed to manage military space.”
The United Launch Alliance, created by the Air Force in 2006, got “this monopoly,” and billions have been spent. “We spent an enormous amount of money on space launch and at the same time became reliant on Russian-made engines” based on arguments that a U.S. investment would be too costly and “competition is impossible,” Smith said. And yet, SpaceX “proved us wrong.”
Launch is just one area of underperformance, Smith said. “But creating a whole new bureaucracy, a whole new branch, to address it [is not] the best way. It costs more money than it nets.”
On securing the border with Mexico, Smith said Trump’s deployment of active-duty forces before the November midterm elections as a caravan of immigrants approached seeking asylum was an “optics thing … to make people believe this is an invasion and a huge problem.” He called it “a misuse of our troops.”
Trump “misunderstands the problem,” Smith said. Democrats agree that border security is important. Over the last dozen years, the border security budget quintupled, resulting in “a significant decline in unlawful border crossings,” he said.
“We’ve had Guard and Reserve troops down there … We’ve built a wall; the president seems to have missed that. [But] on a lot of the property where the president wants [more] wall, some of it is tribal land, some of it is privately owned land, some of it is like 10,000 feet high so you’re not going to put a wall up there.”
“The challenge we are facing now is different. It’s asylum seekers. You don’t need to build more security because folks are not trying to sneak in. They are turning themselves in [to get] through the process. I don’t deny there has been a significant increase in people seeking asylum but the solution to that is not to harden the border. The solution is to hire more judges and expedite the process.”
Trump, Smith said, misstates the challenge to stoke fear.
Smith echoed New York Sen. Chuck Schumer, ranking Democrat in the Senate, to note that of $1.3 billion in border security approved for the current year, the administration has spent only 6 percent, or about $78 million.
Smith said he agrees with Democratic colleagues that defense spending needs to be brought into balance with spending on domestic programs.
“It’s fair to say that in a Democratic budget, in a tight environment scenario, we’re going to want to have other priorities in addition to defense. How do we do that? We did it last year by agreeing that we just weren’t going to worry about how much money we spent … on defense or domestic priorities. I don’t know that that’s going to work in the future.”
The question then for defense budgets, Smith said, is what’s the right number, assuming a return to “some kind of fiscal sanity.”
The Republican approach to national security “is to point out all the areas where we don’t have enough capability and say we have to spend more money,” Smith said. Under current strategy “we have to win a war with China and Russia, preferably simultaneously. We have to stop North Korea. And do all this stuff that, frankly, adds up to more money than we possibly have.
“I’m interested in trying to find a national security strategy that balances risk [and] also understands that the strategy has to fit within a realistic budget framework. We can’t do everything,” Smith said.
He noted recent arguments from the Defense Department that any budget below $733 billion for fiscal 2020 “would increase our risk,” Smith said. “Well, anything below a trillion will increase our risk. … What’s the magic of 733? I’ve asked that question of several Pentagon officials. Thus far I haven’t been satisfied with the answer.”
Trump earlier this year ordered all federal departments, including Defense, to cut budgets for 2020 by 5 percent. He even tweeted in early December that the $716 billion in defense spending authorized for 2019 was “crazy.”
The next day, however, Trump met with Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and top Republicans on the armed services committee and agreed to back $750 billion for defense in 2020 — $27 billion more than DOD projected before Trump directed a department budget cut of 5 percent.
Smith noted that the nation’s debt had reached $22 trillion and would soon be climbing by $1 trillion annually if Congress doesn’t act. Interest on the debt will surpass the size of the defense budget this fiscal year, Smith said. The debt “hangs over everything” because there’s not “money to do what we’d all like to do,” including repair bridges, roads and other deteriorating infrastructure.
A prediction that Smith got wrong in conversing with reporters in mid-December was the longevity of Mattis as defense chief.
“I think President Trump knows how important he is to the administration and what they’re doing,” Smith said. “I don’t see any evidence whatsoever that he wants to leave or that the president wants him to.”
A week later Trump announced the withdrawal 2,000 U.S. troops from Syria, a move Mattis vehemently opposed. The next day Mattis became the first defense secretary to resign in protest over presidential orders impacting military operations.
Congressional leaders and U.S. allies, who had not been consulted, joined in criticizing the abrupt withdrawal, arguing it betrayed Kurdish forces allied with the U.S. in fighting Islamic State militants. Russian President Vladimir Putin and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey, who threaten the Kurds, praised the move.
In his resignation letter, Mattis spelled out his differences with Trump on respecting allies and “being clear-eyed about both malign actors and strategic competitors” like Russia and China. Trump initially praised Mattis.
When news reports focused on the tone of Mattis’ letter, the president criticized the retired Marine Corps general and ordered his departure by Jan. 1, two months earlier than Mattis planned to ensure a smooth transition.