With the Blue Wave pushing new Democratic lawmakers with military backgrounds into the House, expect the next House Armed Services Committee (HASC) to take a scalpel to the defense budget to emphasize value and mission need, and contribute even more to the U.S. national security conversation, said Rep. Anthony Brown (D-Md.).
Having new Democratic veterans on committees such as HASC, Foreign Affairs or Intelligence will allow the new majority to “have much more credibility on these issues,” Brown said in a Nov. 13 interview with Defense Daily.
While the number of overall veterans serving in Congress continues to decline, the 116th Congress will include the most incoming veterans in a freshman class in over a decade, with 16 new House lawmakers having served in the military, seven of which are Democrats. An Army veteran with nearly 30 years in the service, Brown was elected to Congress in 2016 and currently serves on the HASC readiness and tactical air and land subcommittees.
“You don’t have to be a veteran to … have an important voice in national security and in national defense,” Brown said. But the military or intel community background does help lawmakers ask “the right questions” of Pentagon officials, he noted.
A Democratic-led House Armed Services Committee will be looking for “the greatest value for what we’re investing in,” Brown said. That could include a review of the next planned tranche of Littoral Combat Ship buys for the Navy, an assessment of the required number of aircraft carriers, or surveying the cost of future F-35 Joint Strike Fighter lots, he said.
HASC members next year will require more insight from Pentagon leaders of the material impact of a reduced budget in fiscal year 2020, Brown said. President Trump has expressed a desire to slash cabinet budgets by five percent, and DoD officials have been building two requests – one with a $716 billion topline and one that caps at $700 billion – to show the administration and lawmakers what would be squeezed out of a smaller budget (Defense Daily, Nov.15).
Across-the-board cuts are “an irresponsible way of governing,” Brown said, adding that a 5 percent cut would be “devastating” for agencies such as the Department of Veterans Administration. “There are some programs that have greater value than others, and there are some that have greater unmet needs than others,” he said.
“As far as DoD is concerned … we are about to revisit sequestration, and if sequestration were to kick in, you’re talking about a $70 billion cut,” he said. Lawmakers need to perform “an across-the-board evaluation of the entire department to see what the appropriate value savings might be” rather than impose a straight budget cut.
HASC Democrats may look at performing a new round of base realignment and closure, or BRAC, efforts to find savings, Brown said.
“Even when you account for future growth in the force, there are still savings to be made with another round,” he said. “I do think we need to look at it.”
The new House majority will also be pushing for a tougher stance on the U.S. military’s involvement in the conflict in Yemen, Brown said.
“What’s happening … is really a proxy war between Saudi Arabia, and at a grave cost of far too many innocent civilians,” he said. “We do have a responsibility to ensure that civilian casualties are minimized, if not altogether reduced.”
Brown supported Rep. Ro Khanna’s (D-Calif.) amendment in the FY ’19 National Defense Authorization Act that established new reporting requirements and criteria for air refueling support to the Saudi-led coalition battling Iranian-backed Houthis in Yemen. He said he was pleased by the Pentagon’s recent announcement that air refueling support would end, and that he believes the U.S. government needs to use every tool at its disposal to influence Saudi Arabia’s military operations in the region.
But Congress should be “careful” on the path forward for foreign military sales (FMS) to Riyadh, he noted. FMS can be used to influence the military operations and activities of allies “in a positive way,” Brown said.
“If we flat out discontinue foreign military sales, I do think we lose a leverage point, and I do think that we will quickly substituted by Russia, and/or China, who we know have no regard whatsoever for human rights the way that we do,” he said. “We need to use our foreign military sales to positively influence what’s happening on the ground in Yemen.”
However, the goal of FMS should not be to create U.S. jobs, Brown noted. The Trump administration released a statement Nov. 20 on the U.S.-Saudi relationship that emphasized the potential economic impact of hundreds of billions of dollars in weapons sales to Riyadh that has already been approved for sale (Defense Daily, Nov. 20).
“While it may be an incidental outcome that may be a benefit to those who are employed in the defense industry, that should not be a goal and objective for foreign military sales,” Brown said.