The Race for HASC Chairman Has Begun

Why Mac Thornberry Is the Early Favorite to Lead HASC in 2015

By Dustin Walker

No one knows if there will be a race for the chairmanship of the House Armed Services Committee (HASC) in the 114th Congress. But based on the chatter in defense circles on Capitol Hill and around Washington, the race is on.

And the likely favorite says he’s ready to step up should the current chairman, Rep. Howard "Buck" McKeon, choose to retire at the end of this term.

In a wide-ranging interview with RealClearDefense, Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-TX) said if there’s a vacancy for the HASC chairmanship, he will be ready to make his case. “Whenever the time comes, I’ll be ready,” said the Texas Republican.

Yes, it’s over a year until the start of the next Congress. And there’s never a guarantee that Republicans will maintain control of the House of Representatives.

But at this stage, Thornberry is the odds-on favorite to win the chairmanship if it becomes vacant, according to multiple sources on Capitol Hill and in the defense industry who spoke to RealClearDefense on the condition of anonymity given the sensitivity of a potential leadership race. His current role as the committee’s vice chairman, good relations with House Republican leadership, reputation for solid policy and political chops, and growing fundraising prowess were common factors cited as bolstering Thornberry’s case to lead HASC.

Number Two Man Looking at Number One

Long before he was in Congress, Thornberry focused on national security issues. He worked on those issues as a congressional staffer for Texas representatives Tom Loeffler and Larry Combest. He later served as Deputy Secretary of State for Legislative Affairs in the Reagan administration.

After being elected to Congress in 1994, “Armed Services was always my first choice,” said Thornberry. He’s also gone on to serve on the House Intelligence Committee.

Thornberry’s defense-heavy Texas Panhandle district is home to Sheppard Air Force Base, manufacturing facilities for the V-22 Osprey, and the Pantex Plant, the nation’s only nuclear weapons assembly and disassembly facility.

After 18 years in Congress, what has Thornberry eyeing the chairmanship? Thornberry was circumspect in his interview with RealClearDefense, not wanting to speculate too much on a potential bid for the top spot on HASC.

But a source familiar with Thornberry’s thinking about the race told RCD it has been his service as HASC Vice Chairman since 2011 under Chairman McKeon that has made Thornberry feel most prepared to lead the full committee. Thornberry has “appreciated the latitude and extra responsibility Chairman McKeon entrusted him. Mr. Thornberry feels he’s learned a lot, especially about what people want to know about your leadership” in a position like HASC chairman, said this source.

His role as the committee’s number two man has helped Thornberry develop a positive working relationship with McKeon that will surely prove an asset if he seeks to replace him.

The two men are very different. McKeon has a down-home, almost folksy personal style and a loud grandpa laugh one might expect from the former owner of a chain of Western apparel stores.  Thornberry is quiet and somewhat bookish, seemingly at home reviewing briefing materials and self-prepared notes as he so often does when he takes his seat early at committee hearings. McKeon is a gregarious steward of relationships, Thornberry a serious student of government. McKeon speaks plainly and from-the-gut, with a reputation for honesty that can sometimes get him into trouble. Thornberry speaks with a deliberate and patient Texas drawl seeming to thoughtfully measure his remarks at every turn.

It’s these personal differences that gives their relationship a “yin and yang” quality, said one source who has observed McKeon and Thornberry’s “interesting rapport.”

While Thornberry says it’s probably too early to be talking legacies, he believes McKeon’s chairmanship will be remembered well by history. “I think he has been chairman in a very difficult time,” Thornberry told RealClearDefense. “Budget cuts as well as some really difficult problems in the world, and difficult decisions that the administration has been making that make it harder to protect the country’s security, whether it’s the way they got out of Iraq or the drawdown in Afghanistan, a long list of things. Anybody has to be judged by the context of the times they live in and I think he’s done a very, very good job in very difficult circumstances.”

Thornberry Formulating Priorities as Would-Be Chairman

“Very difficult circumstances” and a host of pressing issues will confront the Armed Services Committee in the coming years, but it’s the constitutional role of the committee and Congress as a whole that have Thornberry’s mind occupied as he eyes the chairmanship. “A lot of the things we’re talking about now aren’t going away: adequate funding for national security or keeping an eye out of new threats that may emerge like cyber, some change in Syria, or whatever it is. But through all that, I think one has to be mindful of the constitutional role the Congress is given.”

Thornberry is worried that Congress is in danger of ceding some its most important constitutional responsibilities as it struggles to adjust to the speed and geography of the complex threat environment of the 21st century. “There’s lots of provisions in Article I, Section 8 about our responsibilities in contributing to the country’s security,” said Thornberry. “And we have to do that even in a time when some of these threats move at the speed of light. Some of the threats could be anywhere in the world, for example with an affiliate of al-Qaeda.”

As Thornberry sees it, the choice for Congress is stark. “It kind of looks to me that there’s two choices: you either abdicate our congressional responsibility and just let an administration do whatever they want to and criticize them after the fact; or you try to develop a scheme where they have the flexibility to operate in a world that moves at the speed of light, but still we exercise our constitutional role in it.”

As Thornberry examines the challenges ahead on defense spending, terrorism, cyber, and space, he returns frequently to “oversight and authorities.” For those close to the Texas congressman, that refrain is unsurprising from Thornberry, described by aides as deeply interested in the science and design of government.

As one example of a renewed focus on oversight and authorities, Thornberry cited his work on the Oversight of Sensitive Military Operations Act (OSMOA), which was included as part of this year’s National Defense Authorization Act.

In March of this year, Senator Rand Paul’s 13-hour filibuster over U.S. drone policy made the controversial of U.S. counterterrorism policy a major political issue. In a speech at the National Defense University in May, President Obama responded to those concerns, discussing at length the necessity of extending oversight over drone strikes and special operations missions that have become staples of America’ counterterrorism arsenal and are likely to continue in a new phase of the War on Terror.

Thornberry made a legislative attempt to do just that. OSMOA requires the administration to notify congressional defense committees of targeted lethal operations by the U.S. military overseas and codify in-depth quarterly updates on U.S. counterterrorism operations. It would also require a report outlining all legal and policy considerations relating to the use of force by the U.S. military against terrorists overseas, and the process used to approve potential targets.

The expanded use of drone strikes and special operations in the War on Terror is “an example of where the world is changing, but we still need to exercise our constitutional responsibilities,” argued Thornberry. “Whatever’s happening with all that, we need to do our job. That provision is an example building off what we did with cyber, and before that with terrorism, where we’re trying to update our role so it’s consistent with the constitution, but fits with the world.”

Leading a Divided GOP on Defense and National Security

For Thornberry, a focus on oversight and authorities has an important political implication: it’s a critical component to reuniting his colleagues in a divided Republican Party on defense and foreign policy. It’s the kind of thinking that one would expect from a man who might seek to become to the House GOP’s point man on defense.

The end of the Bush administration and the rise of the Tea Party exposed a deep rift in the GOP on everything from Pentagon spending to drone strikes, foreign aid to detention policy, NSA surveillance programs to interventions in Libya and Syria. There have always been Republicans skeptical of foreign entanglements, but it’s the withering support for a robust Pentagon budget that has been a relatively new feature.

While GOP defense hawks like Thornberry have repeatedly warned of the dangers of sequestration and urging steps to replace the steep defense cuts, the House GOP Conference dominated by fiscal hawks has insisted upon maintaining sequester-level cuts regardless of the impact on defense. Only the political damage from the government shutdown seems to have created enough political space for some House Republicans to support the Ryan-Murray budget deal that replaces a total of $31.5 billion worth of Pentagon cuts in FY2014 and FY2015.

Undaunted, Thornberry sees a way forward.

Thornberry doesn’t view the divide in the Manichean terms others have used. “As with most things, it’s overly simplistic to say there’s this group or that group,” observed Thornberry. “There’s lots of shades of opinion. To torture this analogy, the colorization of those shades has shifted somewhat as we’ve gotten further away from 9/11.”

He also doesn’t believe the Republican commitment to strong defense has wavered. Instead, what constitutes strong defense is now up for serious debate. “A basic tenet of the Republican Party is a strong national defense, just as a basic tenet of the Republican Party is low taxes and limited government,” said Thornberry. “And I don’t think that’s gone away at all. Now how you use that defense, your degree of involvement in the world, what situations you’re involved in – that’s changed somewhat.” For Thornberry, that has largely been the result of the two long wars. “Everybody has the felt the effects of ten, eleven years of being in the terrorism battle. So there’s just natural consequences that come from that.”

How can the problem be fixed? Reexamine, rebuild, renew, and enhance Congress’ oversight and authorities as a trust-building mechanism for reuniting defense hawks with the fiscal hawks and civil libertarians in the House GOP Conference.

For example, one of the outcomes Thornberry hopes he can achieve through his acquisition reform initiative is a renewed sense of trust among Republicans that the Armed Services Committee is ensuring defense dollars are spent well. “What this acquisition reform can contribute to is a reassurance that the money we’re spending at the Pentagon is spent well. And I think that helps – not that there’s a final answer to that – to build up that confidence that money is spent well.”

In other words, said a source familiar with Thornberry’s thinking, “It’s not that GOP fiscal hawks are ideologically opposed to strong defense budgets or have an ideal nominal figure for the defense budget in mind.” Rather said this source, “conservatives’ negative reaction to high defense spending has been fueled by the perception that such budget levels were reached through a faulty, wasteful, even corrupt process.” Revitalizing congressional oversight to take on that problem is “essential to restore faith in defense budgeting.”

Acquisition reform is just one example of what Thornberry hopes will be a pattern of Congress reasserting its constitutional role by adapting its oversight and authorities to new circumstances and domains. He mentioned intelligence and surveillance programs, security-related research and development, cyberdefense, and the Authorization for Use of Military Force as other areas in need of similar initiatives. 

McKeon Said to Be Weighing Retirement

The speculation about the leadership of the House Armed Services Committee comes as its current chairman approaches the end of his term and is said to be weighing retirement.

Congressional insiders expect Chairman McKeon, will retire from Congress at the end of his current term. While McKeon, aged 75 and serving his eleventh term in Congress, maintains he has yet to make a decision, there have been growing signs he will decide to leave. His longtime chief of staff, Bob Cochran, retired last year, and a growing field of Republican candidates is publicly eyeing his seat in California’s 25th District.

But the latest indication of McKeon’s plans is his increasingly visible support of his potential successor as chairman of the House Armed Services Committee. Earlier this month, McKeon’s chief of staff Alan Tennille told Politico that McKeon expects Thornberry to succeed him as chairman. “The chairman has been impressed with Mr. Thornberry — he finds him to be a thoughtful and insightful leader,” said Tennille. “For those reasons, he expects him to be the next chairman.” Tennille’s quasi-endorsement of Thornberry came after McKeon tapped Thornberry in October to lead a major committee initiative on acquisition reform with the committee’s top Democrat, Rep. Adam Smith (D-WA).

Rounding Out the Field

Regardless of McKeon’s endorsement of Thornberry, committee chairmanships are rarely uncontested. Besides Thornberry, two HASC Republicans have been consistently mentioned as potential candidates by congressional and industry sources: Rep. Randy Forbes (R-VA) and Rep. Mike Turner (R-OH).

Forbes is the chairman of the HASC Seapower subcommittee, known as a fierce advocate for American naval power with a strong background in Asia-Pacific security issues. He’s the (rare) kind of Member of Congress that can explain at length why AirSea Battle is an operational concept, not a strategy. His policy depth and mind for strategy have made him popular in think tanks and defense policy circles, with a number of defense experts telling RealClearDefense they would welcome Forbes’ leadership of the committee. But his views on social issues have been the cause of recent controversy, and he’s bucked House leadership on key votes in the past.

Turner chairs the HASC Tactical Air & Land Forces subcommittee. He is comfortable both as a bipartisan problem solver and a fiery partisan debater. Turner has worked with Democrats like Reps. Niki Tsongas (D-MA) and Rob Andrews (D-NJ) for years on issues like sexual assault prevention and military child custody rights. But when it comes time for HASC’s annual marathon defense authorization markup, it’s usually Turner who takes on Democrats point-for-point into the wee hours on everything from missile defense to BRAC, nuclear modernization to the F-35. Multiple defense industry sources identified Turner as a likely future HASC chairman. But those same sources believed it was unlikely that Turner would get the gavel this time around, finding it improbable that he could “jump seniority” into the chairman’s seat.

Some other potential candidates for the chairmanship are considered unlikely. While Reps. Jeff Miller (R-FL), Bill Shuster (R-PA), and John Kline (R-MN) might be considered viable candidates to lead the Armed Services Committee, all three are currently serving as chairmen of other committees (Veterans Affairs, Transportation & Infrastructure, and Education &Workforce, respectively). Generally, the House Republican Steering Committee, which decides committee chairmanships, is said to frown upon a current committee chairmen contesting the race for another gavel.

Rep. Mike Rogers (R-AL) has also been mentioned as a future contender for the HASC chairmanship. Most sources that spoke with RealClearDefense believe he currently lacks the seniority on the committee to mount a serious bid for the top slot. 

Dynamics of a Race for Chairman

If McKeon retires, it will be up to the House Republican Steering Committee to nominate a replacement to put before the House Republican Conference, which rarely rejects such nominations.

In a plausible field with Forbes and Turner, congressional and industry sources say the dynamics of the Steering Committee make Thornberry the odds-on favorite.

Just like Fight Club, it’s difficult to find many on the Hill willing to discuss Steering Committee matters with much specificity. But one thing is apparent from the committee’s makeup: it’s dominated by Republican leadership.

The House GOP’s leadership is fully represented on the Steering Committee, and the votes are weighted toward the top. Speaker John Boehner has five votes, Majority Leader Eric Cantor three votes, and Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy two votes.

The rest of the committee members have one vote. These include the holders of more than half a dozen other elected leadership offices, the chairmen of the five A-committees (Rules, Ways & Means, Appropriations, Budget, Energy & Commerce), the presidents of the freshman and sophomore classes, and over a dozen regional representatives. Those regional spots on the committee also tend to tilt toward leadership, filled in many cases by committee chairmen like Mike Rogers (Intelligence), Lamar Smith (Science), Bill Shuster (Transportation), Bob Goodlatte (Judiciary), Jeff Miller (Veterans Affairs), and Doc Hastings (Natural Resources).

The distinct leadership flavor of the Steering Committee demonstrates not only the outsized influence of Speaker Boehner in deciding who the next HASC chairman would be, but also suggests what kind of leader the committee will be looking for.

On the Steering Committee, being a “team player” is perhaps one of the most important qualifications for a committee chairmanship. Thornberry is certainly perceived as one.

Thornberry has voted with leadership on tough pieces of legislation, even when some of his fellow defense hawks did not. For example, despite concerns about the 2011 Budget Control Act’s impact on defense, Thornberry stuck with House leadership and voted in favor of the legislation. By comparison, both his colleagues Forbes and Turner voted against the bill. As a potential opponent of Thornberry’s for the chairmanship, Forbes has a particularly complicated voting record from a leadership point of view, having been one of only 10 Republicans to oppose the Ryan budget in March 2013 and having voted against final passage of the defense authorization bill in December 2011.

Beyond his votes, a senior GOP defense aide said Thornberry’s manner would be appealing to House leadership. “You’re not going to find Mac getting in trouble with some off-color remark in the press, or firing off some half-baked press release breaking ranks with the Speaker.” Thornberry’s “steady reserve” would likely be an appealing quality for the Steering Committee, said the aide.

Since being named HASC vice chairman, Thornberry has been asked at various times by House and committee leadership to take point on a number of national security issues “in need of explaining,” according to a source close to Thornberry. These have included thankless, in-the-weeds issues that have riled up the GOP’s conservative base: the Authorization to Use Military Force, detention policy, Guantanamo Bay, and sensitive intelligence and surveillance programs. He’s also led the House Cybersecurity Task Force and served as a key liaison to House conservatives and the Republican Study Committee on sequestration and defense budget issues. 

While races for chairmanships aren’t entirely about money, it certainly doesn’t hurt in the eyes of the Steering Committee. So far this election cycle, Thornberry has given $133,650 to the National Republican Congressional Committee, according to OpenSecrets.org. Forbes has given $62,400, while Turner has given just $5,550. A source familiar with Thornberry’s thinking says he intends to be active in supporting Republican candidates in the 2014 elections, including through travel and fundraising.

Another obvious reason Thornberry is viewed as the early favorite is that he almost got their vote last time. In 2009, Thornberry squared off against McKeon for the HASC ranking member slot on the Armed Services Committee left open when John McHugh became Secretary of the Army. The race was decided by a narrow margin, supposedly coming down to a deciding vote by then-Minority Leader John Boehner. Because of the weighting of the votes on the committee, it is possible Thornberry may have won the votes of more Steering members than McKeon. Having barely missed out on a leadership role in 2009, there’s no reason to believe his standing among the committee’s members has since diminished.

Thornberry visited Afghanistan with Speaker Boehner in 2011.

Instead, it seems likely Speaker Boehner will back Thornberry this time around.

The imprimatur of McKeon, the current chairman and close Boehner ally, is likely to carry significant weight with the Speaker, and thus the Steering Committee.

Furthermore, Boehner has already effectively tapped as a leadership candidate. He named Thornberry vice chairman of the Armed Services Committee after he passed over him for the top slot on the Intelligence Committee. Coming on top of Thornberry’s loss to McKeon for the HASC ranking member post in 2009, a senior GOP defense aide said the move was “clearly meant to convey that Boehner saw Thornberry as future candidate for leadership.”

At the time, Boehner offered a glowing endorsement. He described Thornberry as a “real leader in our Conference on national security” and “an innovator and strategic thinker.” The vice chairmanship would give Thornberry “an expanded role” with “new responsibilities and opportunities,” said Boehner.  

It’s too soon to tell, but a year from now it’s not difficult to imagine a similar press release coming from the Speaker’s office. 

Dustin Walker is the Editor of RealClearDefense.

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