The defense budget was plummeting when Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash., was elected to Congress in 1996, and the former state senator was focused on jobs and the economy in his region.
Smith had thought it would be bad karma to consider his future committee assignments while campaigning, the equivalent of searching for Washington apartments before being elected. But then-Rep. Norm Dicks, a defense-hawk Democrat from his state and a longtime member of the House Appropriations Committee, urged Smith, who had military facilities in his district, to get on Armed Services.
Nearly two decades later, Smith is well versed in security issues. The former prosecutor went on to chair the subcommittee that oversees all Army and nearly all Air Force acquisitions programs, and the one that oversees special operations forces and counterterrorism policy. In a tight 2010 internal election, Smith defeated former Rep. Silvestre Reyes, D-Texas, and Rep. Loretta Sanchez, D-Calif., to take the ranking-member post.
“Fate has been good,” Smith laughs.
But as fate would have it, the defense budget is shrinking again after ballooning to meet the needs of two long wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. The Pentagon is working to implement $487 billion in cuts over a decade brought on by the Budget Control Act. And another half-trillion dollars in reductions are coming through sequestration, unless Congress and the White House can find a way to avoid it.
Smith has political cover that many lawmakers don’t enjoy on this thorny issue. Skeptical that the gridlocked Congress could reach an agreement to reduce the deficit when it could not agree to raise the debt ceiling, Smith voted against the Budget Control Act in August 2011. “Staring down the prospect of Armageddon, all I could think about was Ghostbusters. ‘Don’t cross the streams,’ ” Smith says. “If you couldn’t get a big budget deal staring down the brink of the debt ceiling, how on Earth are you going to get a budget deal because of [the prospect] of sequestration?” With Republicans bristling at the idea of raising taxes and Democrats balking at cutting entitlements, “my exact line was [at the time]: ‘I am not making any plans for December 2012.’ And sure enough, come New Year’s Eve, I was sitting right here,” Smith says from his Rayburn office.
But Smith 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.”
Outsiders who know Smith well say he does not make his decisions lightly. The ranking member, says John Hamre, president of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, is “constantly growing” and building on his knowledge. “I know that sounds passé, but most members of Congress these days largely have transactional interactions with people who come to see them,” Hamre says. Smith has a reputation for being practical and logical—in keeping with his law background—but the “gridlock politics of deficits is blocking really a rational discussion about America’s national security,” Hamre says.
“[Smith] has rather consistently said the lack of an honest solution on the deficits is a national security crisis, and he’s ... probably the best spokesman to that very point. He’s one of the guys who says, ‘Of course we’re going to have to rationalize spending and rationalize our revenue structure because national security requires it.’ ”
But Smith has also drawn criticism by some on the Right for appearing to adhere too closely to the White House’s point of view. Sometimes this support for President Obama is on full display on the hearing-room dais. (During a fiery hearing in August 2012, acting Office of Management and Budget Director Jeff Zients said that Republicans’ refusal to raise taxes on the wealthiest of Americans was causing the stalemate over sequestration; Republicans blamed Obama, and Smith was the administration’s main defender: “Normally ... the members of the committee are very partisan, but our witnesses are from the [Defense Department], and they don’t really fight back,” Smith said. “Today we finally had someone who was willing to punch back.”)
Even if administration officials are not in the room, it’s clear from statements and interviews that Smith’s message falls in line with the White House. That’s not altogether surprising, because Smith worked on Obama’s campaign and says he always agreed with his overall foreign policy and national security views. On issues from base realignment to Syria, Smith says, “I’ve been with them on that. We had a good, clear plan on Libya; we implemented it and I was supportive of that—supportive of getting out of Iraq; supportive of a greater emphasis in Afghanistan; supportive of aggressively using [special operations command] and the drone campaign to corner al-Qaida.”
While Smith acknowledges the White House could have handled some things better, he also says, “There’s no substantial policy that I disagree with ... on national security and foreign policy. It’s a pretty symbiotic relationship.”
As a member of Congress, Smith has occasionally ventured where Obama has not—such as going to Syria in 2009, when he led a delegation to speak with Bashar al-Assad. “You sit down with a serial killer who you didn’t know for, like, an hour maybe, you talk football and say he seems like an all-right guy,” Smith jokes. Assad was engaging and more frank than the lawmakers expected, but the brutality of the Syrian civil war—and Assad’s widely criticized role—is not lost on Smith. As he puts it, “It’s hard to put a smiley face on that.”