By Megan Eckstein
With the House Armed Services Committee done with its defense bill and awaiting floor debate, the House Appropriations defense subcommittee staff will have the guidance it needs to complete its bill this month–which subcommittee chairman Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-N.J.) said would closely mirror the HASC bill.
Frelinghuysen, who is going through his first appropriations cycle as committee chairman–he took over the job in November after former chairman Bill Young (R-Fla.) died–said he hoped to have the language of the bill complete by the end of the month, though he would not bring the bill forward for markup or floor debate until the Obama administration clarifies its Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) request.
“I want a bill on the floor sooner rather than later. Obviously, there’s some speculation that there’s some things in our bill that will be so controversial that maybe leadership might push us out,” he said in an April 30 interview with Defense Daily, referring to annual speculation about bills getting caught up in the political process. “But I’m committed to [HAC Chairman Rep. Hal Rogers (R-Ky.)] that as soon as we get the OCO number we’ll be ready to go.”
Frelinghuysen said he wanted to wait on the OCO request rather than moving forward with a placeholder figure, which is what HASC did, for the sake of having a full and open debate about spending. Particularly because some items could end up in either the base or supplemental war budget, Frelinghuysen said it makes more sense to wait for the administration to figure out its plan for future presence in Afghanistan and argue its case to Congress, and then allow the defense subcommittee to mark up a comprehensive budget bill that he can defend to critics.
The idea of being able to stand behind his decisions came up several times–Frelinghuysen said he was especially concerned about smartly choosing which acquisition programs to fund and ensuring they continue to meet their cost and schedule goals.
“There are a lot of weapons systems out there, a lot of things people want, but our job is to respect the allocation we’ve been given, work within it and, it sounds sort of rhetorical, make every dollar count,” he said. “We don’t want to find ourselves in the situation–and from time to time I read GAO reports and special inspector general reports … I don’t want to be in a position of trying to defend misadventures and mis-expenditures.”
With the House and Senate budget committees having agreed on a topline for fiscal year 2015 already, his committee is operating under regular order for the first time in several years, and Frelinghuysen said he wants to take advantage of the “relative bipartisanship” and focus the energy on picking the right projects to fund.
Wrapped up in making smart acquisition decisions is a concern for the industrial base, which Frelinghuysen said he thinks lawmakers feel more acutely than Defense Department officials.
“We have so many worthy programs, we want to make sure that they aren’t delayed and there aren’t cost-overruns and there are actually deliverables. In a general sense, we need to make sure that the cost estimates that have been projected … are on-target. I think we don’t want to see a situation where skeptics have a field day.
“And, of course, we have competition here among some very smart technologies that different companies run,” he said. “And all of them come in and say, and I believe it too, we need to make sure that we have an industrial base, we don’t just have one sole source. So I think the Pentagon is less interested–and I say this respectfully–I think the Pentagon is less interested in sort of the protection of the industrial base because I think history has sort of shown that if there is a crisis–and we do live in a world where the unexpected seems to be happening on a fairly regular basis–that somehow we can gin up tool and dye manufacturing and all the sophisticated technologies that we need in order to support our warfighters. And that’s not possible. So I think there’s a lot of anxiety among the colleagues on the committee and the 435 members in Congress about the future of our defense industrial base.”
When deciding which programs to fund, Frelinghuysen said he hoped to stay in lockstep with HASC–the committee has a larger staff than HAC-D and therefore the two staffs have tried to work together closely, he said. Frelinghuysen talked about HASC as taking the lead on some decisions, since their bill comes first, and he said he doesn’t “see any need for separation” on their stances on key issues. In many cases, HASC did what Frelinghuysen wanted to do himself. He is a big supporter of keeping an 11-carrier fleet and forcing the Navy to refuel the USS George Washington (CVN-73), and he was glad to see HASC agreed–though of HASC’s method of threatening to withhold Office of the Secretary of Defense funding until the Navy begins work on the refueling, Frelinghuysen said, “I’m not sure that would be a tactic we would employ, but certainly we would want to discuss that with them.”
Frelinghuysen also mentioned the Navy’s Littoral Combat Ship program, which was aggressively questioned when the subcommittee brought in the Navy Secretary and Chief of Naval Operations to testify in March. HASC members chose to reduce the LCS program from three ships and advance procurement for one in FY ’15 to only two ships and advance procurement for two. Frelinghuysen said he would “probably support [the LCS cut] since they are, to some extent in the driver’s seat. But, there again, we need to take a very close look at what that means for the industrial base and where those hulls are produced.”
Losing a capability in the supply chain due to a bad decision in Congress would be “catastrophic,” he said, adding that jobs and industrial base protection were a key focus of his and an easy-to-sell message to most of his House colleagues.
Frelinghuysen said he was excited to take the helm of the subcommittee after watching so many talented senior lawmakers serve as chairman during his tenure–Young, Norm Dicks, Jack Murtha and Jerry Lewis, among others. He said he has a good working relationship with full committee chairman Rogers, as well as his Senate counterparts, Senate Appropriations Committee chairwoman Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) and defense subcommittee chairman Dick Durbin (D-Ill.).
What he hopes to see more of as his tenure goes on, he said, is communication with the Pentagon. After the formal hearings, he said he hasn’t heard anything from DoD or the services, despite all the challenging decisions Congress needs to make.
“I’m still amazed–and I don’t think it’s me–once the hearing process is over, I really haven’t heard much out of the Pentagon quite honestly. I was on the job for several months before I actually heard from the secretary,” he said. “I’m supportive of our military, our committee pays the bills and I think there ought to be more communication instead of less.”