The Best Defense

New House Armed Services chairman likely to lead it deeper into irrelevancy

My CNAS colleague Connor O'Brien recently wandered over to the W Hotel to see what congressional Republicans have up their sleeves. He wandered back with this report. 

By Connor O'Brien

Best Defense Capitol Hill deputy bureau chief

The other day I went to see what Rep. Buck McKeon, the presumptive next chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, might have to say about things will change on his watch.

The California Republican was a bit coy. The theme of his talk at the Foreign Policy Initiative's 2010 Forum was leadership. He quoted Gen. Omar Bradley, saying that, "Leadership is intangible, and therefore no weapon ever designed can replace it." HASC, as he sees it, needs to restore leadership where President Obama and congressional Democrats have failed. This includes setting a timeline for drawing down troops in Afghanistan, losing focus on Iraq, cutting missile defense programs, and mishandling the War on Terror.

Mr. McKeon committed to working in a bipartisan manner and promised that HASC would not wade into partisan "gotcha" oversight, but the verbs he used in describing his agenda were telling, as  he vowed to "expose," "expedite," "challenge," and "focus," among other things. But he made few concrete statements about anything outside of the normal oversight power that is given to any congressional committee, other than calling wartime cuts in defense spending "a red line for me and a red line for all Americans." Mr. McKeon even acknowledged that his committee's ability to call Gen. David Petraeus to testify on Afghanistan could be limited by the executive branch. "Well, we can ask," McKeon said, "But as I said, we only have one commander in chief, and if he commands Gen. Petraeus to be busy doing something else, he may not show up."

Leadership is intangible, but the final outcome of defense policy is not. Republicans are no doubt committed to strengthening national defense through expanding the budget, exposing poor practices in the defense bureaucracy, and making a long-term military commitment in Afghanistan, but his committee's ability to change the status quo remains to be seen. The same was true of the 110th Congress, where a Democratic majority elected on an anti-war platform ultimately failed to end the Iraq War. With a Democratic Senate and, if necessary, a presidential veto standing in the way, Mr. McKeon and House Republicans have their work cut out for themselves. Still unresolved is the stance newly elected deficit-hawk Republicans will take on defense spending, a divide Sen. John McCain predicted earlier in the day at the FPI hoedown.

Bottom line: Don't expect too much out of the HASC in the next two years.

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

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