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