Inside The House Armed Services Committee

National Journal

The House Armed Services Committee is responsible for authorizing an annual Defense Department budget of more than half a trillion dollars at a time when defense spending, for the first time in perhaps decades, is not treated across the political spectrum as sacrosanct. The result is that committee Chairman Buck McKeon and his defense-conscious colleagues are left to fend off—or at least try to mitigate and manage—what looks to be inevitable: a Pentagon budget spiraling downward, after two long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Add to that the declining power of Armed Services and other committees in an era when the House leadership is firmly in charge of fiscal matters, and it's not easy being a defense hawk these days. National Journal Daily's Special Issue goes inside the committee to profile the major players and examine the issues at stake.

Major Battles Ahead in the Committee
On Aug. 1, 2011, hours before the government was set to default on its debt, House Speaker John Boehner convened Republican members of the House Armed Services Committee in his office to discuss a legislative solution. The deal on the table, called the Budget Control Act, contained nearly a half-trillion-dollar cut in defense spending over the next decade and raised the prospect of another $500 billion reduction through a last-resort mechanism known as sequestration. The speaker, encouraging votes for the deal, said the latter would never happen. And later that day, House Armed Services Committee Chairman Buck McKeon, R-Calif., publicly announced his support for the bill. Like Boehner, he considered the prospect of sequestration so terrible as to render it all but impossible. While no Armed Services chairman would ever want to put the defense budget on the bargaining table, let alone in jeopardy of indiscriminate cuts, McKeon found himself doing exactly that. He voted for—and encouraged others to support—legislation he would spend the next 22 months trying to undo. And the tough decisions are far from over.

A Committee Chairman's Job is Never Easy
Defense spending used to be sacred to Republicans. But the House's influx of lawmakers raring to cut the deficit makes HASC Chairman Buck McKeon's job harder. In an era of intense fiscal pressure, McKeon, who hails from the party that believed in "peace through strength," sees it as his duty to show his colleagues why Congress needs to fund defense programs.

Insiders: House Armed Services Committee Not as Powerful as in the Past
The House Armed Services Committee is not as powerful as it used to be, 86 percent of National Journal's National Security Insiders said.

Graphic: Representing Defense
Members of Congress might join the House Armed Services Committee because of policy expertise or personal experience, but there are geographic reasons as well. Members looking to gain knowledge of and influence over the military issues that affect their districts can do so more easily from a place on the Armed Services panel.

Two Defense-Panel Chairmen Are Tightly Bonded
Other House lawmakers, aides to both men, and defense-budget watchers outside of Congress describe House Armed Services Committee Chairman Buck McKeon and Rep. Bill Young, the top gun on the House Defense Appropriations Subcommittee, as seeming to have a genuine mutual respect and a cooperative spirit in their roles in authorizing and appropriating roughly a half-trillion dollars in defense funding.

A Hollow Military Again?
The problem for military leaders now is that the drawdown from the post-9/11 wars in Iraq and Afghanistan comes not at the best of times but arguably at the worst. Consider the simple fact that readiness problems that took many years to carve out the force in the late 1970s are already affecting today's military. And more than a year still remains before the last of the 63,000 U.S. troops fighting in Afghanistan are scheduled to come home.

Smith Takes a Realistic View on Funding
Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash., the top Democrat on the committee, acknowledges the first round of defense cuts—and maybe more—are inevitable in tight fiscal times, and he says he is committed to helping the Pentagon make reductions. He would even support the Pentagon's request for base realignments and closures, a controversial proposal widely considered dead on arrival in Congress. "I, like everyone else, wish there was more money, but there's not," Smith says. "You've got to live in the world we're in, not in the world you want to be in."

Legislative Comrades-in-Arms Tend to Put Politics Aside
A long line of former active-duty military personnel seek out an Armed Services post after winning election to Congress. True to its name, the panel is populated by members—and staffers—who have served in uniform. And regardless of background, each member brings something that can't be taught to nonveterans on the committee: first-person knowledge.

Defense Industry Focused on Sequestration
No one has been able to successfully wrangle Congress into reaching a grand bargain to reduce the deficit. But it's not for lack of trying. Ever since the Budget Control Act was signed in 2011, the genesis of the deep spending cuts associated with sequestration, Washington's powerful defense lobby has been working to change it.

Buck McKeon's Inner Circle
Meet the 14 people inside the Beltway who are closest to Buck McKeon.