HH: Joined now as I just promised by Buck McKeon, Congressman from the great state of California, almost certainly going to be chair of the House Armed Services Committee, which is why I wanted to talk to you. Congressman, congratulations on reelection, and in the returning majority in Washington, D.C.
BM: Well, thank you very much, Hugh, and thanks for having me on.
HH: Now let’s talk a little bit about Armed Services. What are the priorities for that committee after four years of Democratic leadership, if we want to call it that, on Armed Services issues?
BM: Well, this is one committee in Congress that we actually do work in a bipartisan way. So other than them adding hate crimes and Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, and the DREAM Act, and a few things like that, we will operate without using the military as a football. We will see that we take care of the troops, that they have the things that they need to carry out their missions and return home safely. We will fight for adequate funding for the Armed Services. I have real concern of some of the cutbacks that we have had recently in the Armed Services. Usually, you know, in the history of our nation, we have cut back our military after every war to make sure we won’t be prepared for the next one. You know, Reagan said that in his lifetime, we never had gotten into a war because we were too strong. Generally, our enemies or potential enemies see where we’re weak, and that’s when they strike. That’s when they take advantage. And I’ve never seen us cut back when we’re in war. And we’ve done it now.
HH: Yeah. We are in the middle of two campaigns, one of them very hot, one grounding down, but we’re also engaged in the sea competition. And I’ve been reading Robert Kaplan’s new book Monsoon. We’re down to, what, 283 ships? Is that sufficient for a world global power that is actually supposed to lead as opposed to merely coalition with other forces?
BM: Short answer? No. I just hope that we can get back to speed on this more quickly. I talked to the Secretary of the Navy yesterday, and they are working on the Littoral combat ships, and they’re proposing that the way they’ve gone to bid on these. They’ve got some very good bids in, and it looks like we’re going to be able to get more ships for the same money. So that’s a good thing. We’ll be talking about that in the next few weeks.
HH: That is good.
BM: But they gave us a QDR, which is supposed to tell us our threats that we’re going to be facing in the next twenty years, and they only basically talked about Iraq and Afghanistan, went out about five years. And so we did an independent QDR…
HH: That’s Quadrennial Defense Review for the benefit of the audience.
BM: Thank you. (laughing) When you sit on this committee for a while, you start throwing out those letters like you know what you’re doing. Anyway, we did an independent one. We had Secretary Perry, who helped chair it, he was the Defense Secretary under President Clinton, so he sure wasn’t a hard right winger. But they came out with a unanimous proposal, and they said that we should have the Navy that they asked for back in ’93, which would be 313 ships. We’re not even to there. So that shows you a little bit how far we are behind on the Navy. And you could say the same thing about the Air Force, that we’re about half the size we were about 20 years ago.
HH: Yeah, let’s ask you. I was a critic of the decision to cancel the F-22. I know that’s water under the bridge now, to mix metaphors us with the wrong service. But what about the air strength of the United States in the F-35, and what your committee’s role is going to be in pushing that along? When are we going to get up to speed again?
BM: Well, I have the same concerns. And the argument was that the F-35 is, will be able to just carry on the same as the F-22. They’re two different planes, two different missions. And originally, when they started the F-22, they said we would need 450. Now, we end up about 278. And I guess their feeling is the world’s gotten safer. I don’t know. But the problem is that the budget is driving our defense needs, rather than the defense needs driving the budget.
HH: And on that, let’s talk about that, because I’ve had a conversation with a senior member of the Senate side saying that there’s going to be some problem over this anti-earmarks rhetoric, because while people understand what they mean, it cannot be allowed to impact defense spending, where a lot of line items are put in not because of traditional earmark pork issues, but to plus up necessary budgets. Do you think there’s going to be a meeting of the minds on how to distinguish between necessary defense spending and pork?
BM: Well, you know, we were doing some work on that. We put a moratorium on earmarks, our conference did, for this year. And I know there’s been calls to extend that for another year. The problem is earmarks mean one thing to one person, and something else to somebody else. And we have body armor we got to the troops, we got the Predator to the troops, a lot of things that have saved a lot of lives over in Iraq and Afghanistan, were earmarks. And so I think we have to be very careful. Nobody wants to waste the taxpayer’s dollars. Or at least I shouldn’t say nobody. I sure don’t, and I think the Republican conference will be very careful on how we spend the money. But we need to, I know it will go through a process, and some of us have been working on it, to get away from the Bridge To Nowhere thing that really got people riled up, where they thought Congressmen were spending money in a wasteful manner. I think we need to have transparency. We need to make sure that we put systems in place where we’re not wasting the taxpayer dollar.
HH: Now let me close by asking you, Congressman, if you think Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell will be repealed by the lame duck session of the Congress.
BM: The President called yesterday to wish me, or congratulate me, or whatever. And the last time he invited me to lunch over there a couple of years ago, almost two years ago now when he was brand new to talk about education, I was a ranking member on Education then. And now that I’m going to be the chair on Armed Services, he wanted to talk a little bit about that, and just in general. But I said I missed part of your press conference. I heard, though, that you said you’re going to eliminate Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell during the lame duck. And I said that’s very problematic for me. And he went through why he wants to do it and so forth. But I’m not comfortable with that, and I’m going to do whatever I can to push back to see that doesn’t happen. We want to have the troops, their families involved in this process. If it’s going to happen, we need to have their input. And we’ve had a study, hired a group to do a study on this. They did 300,000 interviews of the troops and their families. I want to know what effect it’s going to have on readiness and recruitment, retention, morale. And there’s not time to get all that information and disseminate it, have hearings before the new Congress. So we’ll do whatever we can to make sure that doesn’t happen.
HH: 30 seconds, Congressman McKeon, that will require the Senate to refuse. Do you think that there are 41 votes there to say no?
BM: John McCain told me, he has the same job in the Senate as I have in the House. He told me that for the first time in his career, he will filibuster the bill. And it’s been what’s been holding it up to this point. They don’t have the 60 votes.
HH: Congressman Buck McKeon, I look forward to talking to you early and often throughout the session ahead. Again, congratulations and good luck on a great chairmanship of Armed Services in the House.
End of interview.