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If the 110
th Congress was any indication, the 112th Congress could be a spectacle. 

The 110th Congress was seated in January 2007 following Congressional Democrats “thumping” Republicans.  It resulted in mixed government -- Republicans in the White House and Democrats controlling Congress -- for the first time since Jim Jeffords’ defection.  The period was marked by rabid Congressional oversight of the Executive Branch in the form of hearings and investigation that drove a constant negative news cycle against Republicans through the 2008 Obama victory.  If history is any teacher, the 112th Congress will be similar.

The 112th Congress will begin with House Republicans introducing “HR 1” to repeal unspent stimulus funding and bailout funds and “HR 2” to repeal Obama’s health legislation.  Given the GOP’s margin in the People’s House it will sail through but meet inaction in the Upper Chamber as well as a veto promise from the Executive.  This will lay the foundation for the Republicans’ message for 2012: “America, we need the Senate and the White House if you really want change.”

Perhaps most important for the 112th Congress, the 111th saw a two-year extension of the Bush-era tax levels.   That tax extension compromise bought President Obama a repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” and the ratification of the New START Treaty.  With these two major battles passed, Republicans will refocus their national security message.  The result is that the 112th Congress will be shaped by two major issues:  1) Spending and the debt sparked by the President’s budget submission in February, and 2) the pending 2012 election. 

Spending

The President and the Democratic Congress increased discretionary spending throughout the 111th Congress banking on a repeal of the Bush-era tax cuts to pay for the appropriations.  Failing to raise revenue, President Obama will be under pressure to control spending in his annual budget submission.  Obama has already announced a salary freeze for federal employees and will likely freeze agency budgets at 2010 appropriated levels.   Given the spending hike in 2010 appropriations, that won’t be enough for House Republicans. 

President Obama will also likely propose cuts to major defense programs in his budget.  Candidates include reducing the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter total purchase, cancelling the F-35B Marine Corps jump jet, cancelling the F136 alternative engine, cancelling the Marine Corps’ Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle, reducing the V-22 multiyear procurement, restructuring “exquisite” satellite programs, and decommissioning one or more aircraft carriers. 

Any one of the aforementioned cuts will amount to a dare to Congressional Republicans: if you really want to control spending and reduce the deficit start with the biggest piece of the discretionary budget -- defense.  Republicans, especially House Republicans, anticipate the challenge and welcome it.  They will use the proposed cuts to defense as a wedge issue in 2012 to tell the American people that the Democrats are weak on defense.  But the electorate won’t be their only audience.  Republicans will also be performing to defense companies and their lucrative PACs.  Defense contractors notoriously donate to both sides of the aisle, hedging their bets.  Republicans will highlight President Obama’s defense cuts as proof that defense companies should pick one team and stick with it.  That political strategy wrested McKeon his chairmanship of the House Armed Services Committee from his more cerebral competitor -- he will need to make good on it.

2012 Elections

Remember a few years ago when there were weeks with two, three, or four hearings on Iraq in both the House Armed Services Committee under Ike Skelton and the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee under Henry Waxman?   Happy Groundhogs’ Day!  House Republicans will repeat the spectacle dragging senior defense, military, and foreign policy officials before the committees of jurisdiction to embarrass the White House on its policies ranging from hurriedly leaving Iraq, under resourcing Afghanistan, and hand-wringing with detainees.   Part of the purpose will be to badger the Executive Branch into changing course on its policies.  But the real motive will be to generate continuous negative news about the President’s handling of war in Afghanistan, the transition in Iraq, and his seriousness in dealing with terrorists.  The idea will be undermine the Chicago community organizer as a dithering Command-in-Chief at best or at worst an insecure Lyndon Johnson-esque micromanager of military strategy.

Each Congress reacts to the news of the day.  There are always surprises.  Surprises possible with which the 112th Congress may have to deal include: 1) Iran tests a nuclear weapon—Israel or Arabs act; 2) Military Skirmish between North and South Korea; 3) Iraq Prime Minister al-Maliki begins behaving more and more like Afghanistan President Karzai; 4) President Karzai does something foolish trigging a showdown with the U.S.; 5) a massive cyber or terrorist attack in the U.S. homeland; or 6) Mexico further destabilizes.   May these things never come to pass.   But if they should, Congressional Republicans will use them as a limit test to judge and grade President Obama further setting the state for the 2012 election. 

And the Democrats?

It will be interesting to see how Democrats respond and to what national security agenda they rally.  Many of the southern and midwestern moderate, pro-defense Democrats lost their seats in the 2010 GOP sweep.  The make-up of the Democratic caucus is fundamentally changed.  Regionally, the caucus represents America’s coasts.  Ideologically, the caucus is further left and “progressive” than the big tent that won the 2006 election.  Many don’t think President Obama is “progressive” enough or doing enough to make the case for his, and their, policies. 

So what’s their national security message?  George W. Bush is in the distant memories of the electorate; President Obama owns Iraq and Afghanistan policy.  The prolonged battle over New START obliterated any chance of Senate consideration of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT).  With “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repealed, one of the great political wedges in Democrat and Republican defense policy has passed.  While implementation will be tricky and at times messy, the furor will be minor compared to the legislative battle that preceded it.  Abortion rights on U.S. military bases may take the place of DADT, but it’s less of a winning issue for Democrats.  One message may be to “get the most out of our defense dollars,” which is another way of pressuring defense contractors.  Another may be to shrink America’s permanent military footprint abroad.  

Whatever happens, it will be fun to watch.