Senator Roger Wicker of Mississippi joined me this morning to discuss the needs of the Navy (and my Washington Post op-ed on how to fund them in part):
HH: Pleased to welcome to the program, I think for the first time, Mississippi Senator Roger Wicker. You can follow him on Twitter, @SenatorWicker. He is a member, one of the senior members of the United States Senate committee on Armed Services. And on June 8th, they are going to have a hearing there on the posture of the Department of Defense of the Navy that will include the acting secretary of the Navy, Sean Stackley, Admiral Richardson, CNO, and General Robert Neller, Commandant of the Marine Corps. That’s going to be an interesting hearing, Senator Wicker. But I wanted to talk to you about what you said last week. We do not have the Navy we need, do we?
RW: We surely don’t, but look, thanks for having me on, and you’re right. It is my first time on the show. Hope it’s not the last.
HH: No, I’m glad to have you. It is great. You were one of the people who actually know the Navy and know the Armed Services like your colleagues, John McCain and others. And when I saw you last week giving testimony, or talking to witnesses about the fact, we are at 274 ships. This is just not big enough, Senator.
RW: Absolutely. And so we’re going to make the case that 355 ships is the right number. And we’re setting out step by step to do that through hearings and talking to people who do this for a living, whose job is the security of the United States and our national and international interests, and I hope when the process is over, the American people are with us on this.
HH: I think they will be, but can you, what was your reaction to the OMB budget that came up which didn’t even add one ship? Then, they went back and scurried around and threw in an LCS or one of the whatever they threw in, they threw in one of the frigates. What did you make of the OMB budget?
RW: Well, there was a disconnect there, there’s no question about it. But you know, I haven’t really ever, in 22 years in the House and Senate, worried too much about the president’s budget. There, they have a very short shelf life. And if we get the top number right, which we need to do by lifting Defense sequestration, then the Armed Services committees in the House and Senate, and the appropriators, can, we can move the numbers around and get us where we need to be the first year. So it was a bit disappointing, but I didn’t spend much time worrying about the OMB numbers.
HH: Oh, that’s a relief, because it’s just, it’s wholly inadequate to the task. But now to the question about the sequester, Senator Wicker, how do we get rid of that? And I mean, you have reconciliation instructions that allow you to do things with 51 votes, but I don’t know that your Democratic colleagues are going to participate in getting the sequester lifted without paying a price somehow.
RW: Well, that’s why I say we need to make the case with the American people. This is not only a matter of national security, but it’s also part and parcel to building up our economy. We can’t have a first-class economy. We can’t get back to manufacturing to the extent that we need to, to trade, to shipping, to getting consumers what they want at the stores, without the sea lanes being open. So we need to make this case to the American people that it’s a matter of security, and also it’s a matter of jobs. And once we do that, then policy will come along. And we have to be leaders in that respect.
HH: Now shipbuilding occurs across the United States from New Hampshire to Florida, from Mississippi to Wisconsin, and component parts across the United States. It is a jobs program that is also a national security program. But the ship mix matters a lot. I’m not sure what they build in Mississippi. You can inform me of that. But how do you see the ship mix changing, Senator Wicker? Based on the testimony you’ve received, and obviously you’ve got more hearings coming up on this. But I think a presidential promise of 355 needs a presidential plan that he signed off on.
RW: Well, we’re going to listen to the experts on this. So I really, I wouldn’t give you a list right now, but we’re going to talk to the people who establish the need to start with. And basically, what they said is in a perfect world unconstrained by budgets, we would have 600-plus ships, and that would get us where we need. Then we look at what the economy can afford in terms of a shipbuilding budget, and it’s 355. And that is now the requirement. So we’re going to listen to, we’re going to listen to the admirals and generals, and be guided by that. And the mix may change. And who knows? You know, five years from now, there may be unmanned ships that can do part of the job.
HH: Of course.
RW: But we need to get started. We need to get started with what we know we can build. And you know, the good thing is we had the shipyard people come in, and also the shipping association executive, and we can do this. We don’t have to build a whole bunch of new shipyards. Our current yards, and you mentioned a lot of places, also California builds a lot of ships, too. They make them on the West Coast. We can accommodate what is needed in the early years of this to get us to the growth rate, and I would hope to 355 in a couple of decades.
HH: So Senator, is it too much to ask for that there be a plan on paper that says we’re going to build this ship at these yards in this year for that amount of money, and then we can all kind of checkmark as progress is made? Almost every organization in the world has a strategic plan that’s on paper somewhere if they want to succeed. And I don’t, I know the Navy has one, but they haven’t lived up to it in a decade.
RW: Well, yes, the plan is there. The plan will need to change. And we certainly want it to be available to the public. So, and then we need to live up to it. It’s been hard to live up to it, because we in Congress have not done our job in terms of lifting sequestration. Sequestration was supposed to be so unthinkable, so risky, that we would never ever do it. And instead, we would get serious about slowing the growth rate of our really important and popular entitlement programs. But we haven’t been able to bring ourselves to do that. So we need to remove sequestration and admit that if you’re going to build ships, you’re going to protect American interests, it is going to cost money.
HH: I remember your friend and mine, Jon Kyl, saying on this show it was a very bad idea that you even risk sequestration. Not only did we risk it, we’ve been under it for five years, and it’s destroying the military. Let me ask you, Senator Wicker, you remember John Lehman. He was, President Trump used to go around and say America needs more cheerleaders. John Lehman was a cheerleader for the Navy during the Reagan build up. We don’t have a Secretary of the Navy, yet. On June 8th, you’ve got an acting secretary of the Navy. How urgent is it that the President get his service secretaries nominated and confirmed?
RW: Very urgent. I like Sean Stackley. And you know, if the President asked me my advice, I’d say Sean Stackley would be a great secretary. He knows it in and out, and I think he’s non-partisan. He’s beyond partisanship. He tells us the facts, and knows it in and out. By the way, we’re going to have John Lehman testifying in mid-June before the Sea Power Subcommittee, and I will chair that hearing. And it will be good to hear what John Lehman says about what we need, and what we can afford, and what our capacity is.
HH: Yeah, I don’t know Mr. Stackley. I want someone that can go out and sell America’s Navy and the fleet and what it does for the world from sea lanes to relief missions wherever disaster strikes, to, of course, national security. We need someone who is a salesman of that order. Let me close, Senator Wicker, by asking you in terms of timing. The Senate sometimes moves at a pace that seems to me to be extraordinarily slow. And then, sometimes, it moves very fast. On the Defense Authorization Act, what’s your schedule? When do you think we get to an act that then allows the appropriators to go to work?
RW: The appropriators are going to go to work anyway, but yeah, we’ve been slow. December year in and year out is not my idea of when the Defense Authorization Act should be in place. I would hope before the end of September. And in that bill, the first thing we need to do is make it the official policy of the United States of America that our Navy needs to go to 355 ships.
RW: Once we do that, we get it signed into law by the president of the United States, the OMB in years to come has to be guided by that. And it becomes a matter of statutory law.
HH: Then one last question not Navy-related, but headline driven. You’re a member on the Committee on Environment and Public Works. The President is said this morning to be on the precipice of withdrawing from the Paris Agreement. I am happy with that decision, because I always viewed it as extra-Constitutional or un-Constitutional. What’s your view of it?
RW: Well, you know, I’m happy about it, and I’ll tell you, if you talk about basing it on sound science, the President should withdraw from the Paris Climate Accord. There’s plenty of evidence that mankind is doing something to change the temperature and the climate. There is precious little evidence that anything agreed to in Paris would change the level of the seas by one millimeter. There’s hardly any evidence that any of that would help, but there’s plenty of evidence to the effect that it would cost jobs and quality of life not only for Americans, but for people all around the world. So for that reason, I think it’s a very realistic move, and I hope indeed those news reports are correct.
HH: To be clear, it was never submitted to Congress. But had the Paris Agreement been submitted to the Senate for ratification, would it have come anywhere near the two-thirds number of votes necessary to ratify it?
RW: No, no, no. And I think that’s part of the reason. But also, you know, I’m told that the parties really are not bound by very much in the agreement. It was just a lot of talk and a lot of words, but didn’t mean much. But to the extent that we might have decided to do our part and live up to our side of the agreement, it would have cost American jobs, and it wouldn’t have affected the temperature appreciably on any spot of the globe.
HH: Senator Wicker, always a pleasure, good to have you on. Come back and good luck in getting the Navy to 355.
RW: Thank you so much.
HH: Thank you, sir.
End of interview.