Rep. Howard P. "Buck" McKeon, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee. (DOD Photo)
After months of speculation, Rep. Howard P. “Buck” McKeon has announced he will not seek re-election to Congress.
In an exclusive conversation with RealClearDefense, the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee (HASC) said he is leaving Congress when his leadership of the committee comes to an end in January 2015.
“I will continue as chairman of the committee throughout the rest of this year and my term. We’ve got a lot of things that we need to do to finish up,” McKeon said. “But I am term-limited as chairman, and I didn’t want people saying I was looking over the shoulder of the next chairman.”
As to that next chairman, the 11-term lawmaker is endorsing Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-Texas), the committee’s current vice chairman. And McKeon is confident Thornberry is ready to compete for the job and serve well.
“Mac’s gone to the steering committee in the past. In fact we competed against each other to get this job,” noted McKeon, referring to his close 2009 race against Thornberry to become ranking member of the committee. “I am convinced that he’s ready to go and that there won’t be any slippage if the Steering Committee selects him to be the chairman. He’s up to speed, he’s ready to go, and I think he ought to be the next chairman of the Armed Services Committee.”
RealClearDefense has previously reported that Thornberry, who represents a defense-heavy district centered on the Texas panhandle, is widely viewed as the heavy favorite to replace McKeon atop the defense panel. Multiple congressional and defense industry sources have cited in Thornberry’s favor his close relationship with House GOP leadership, fundraising prowess, years of service on both the Armed Services and Intelligence committees, and his current role as HASC vice chairman.
Reps. Randy Forbes (R-Va.) and Mike Turner (R-Ohio) have also been mentioned as candidates to replace McKeon atop the HASC.
McKeon is also endorsing Tony Strickland in the race to succeed him in California’s 25th Congressional District. McKeon said his work with the former state senator and assemblyman shows he is a “hard worker” who will be “an outstanding candidate and an outstanding congressman.” State Sen. Steve Knight will also seek the seat as a Republican. While Democrats have long seen McKeon’s district as a potential target, most analysts still leans toward the GOP, especially in a midterm election.
McKeon’s announcement does not come as a surprise. There have been signs for months that the 75-year-old chairman intended to call it quits. His longtime chief of staff, Bob Cochran, retired last year. And his increasingly visible support of Thornberry as a would-be successor was a clear indication he was thinking about a future for the committee that did not include him.
While perhaps unsurprising, the timing of McKeon’s decision is telling. RCD sat down with the California congressman in his office just minutes after the House had passed a $1.1 trillion omnibus spending bill, which sets Pentagon spending levels above those required by sequestration, a goal McKeon has been pursuing for more than two years. It was also just weeks after McKeon and fellow defense advocates in the House and Senate capped an intensive effort to push a defense authorization bill through Congress.
McKeon called the passage of the FY14 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) his most important achievement as chairman. “With all the obstacles that we hit, with the Senate not even passing a bill, having to pull together the [chairmen and ranking members of both House and Senate Armed Services committees], and work a bill that had passed out of committee and not on the floor – that one was probably the most challenging.”
Congress has passed an annual defense authorization bill over 50 years straight. That it took such a dramatic behind-the-scenes effort to achieve last-minute passage of the NDAA is just one reason McKeon called 2013 “the most frustrating year of my time here.”
Though his decision to leave Congress was mostly determined by the end of his chairmanship, he shares many of the complaints voiced by a large number of senior members of Congress who have announced their retirements as congressional productivity has declined and dysfunction seems all too commonplace.
“When leadership would work out a position and then bring it back to the caucus, there were members of the caucus that were never satisfied,” McKeon remarked of the dynamics among House Republicans in 2013. “I think that was very frustrating.”
In an otherwise grim year on Capitol Hill, McKeon sees a silver lining. “We got a budget. I think that is a real positive turn where we might be able to start getting back to regular order.” Part of the reason Congress has had trouble snapping out of its current state of paralysis is that many members have never known anything else. “Over the half the members in Congress now have never seen regular order, where you actually pass a budget, where you actually pass appropriations bills, you get the government funded, you don’t have to a CR.”
McKeon hopes that will change going forward for the military’s sake. “The chairman of the Joint Chiefs and the service chiefs have never had a budget in their time in those positions. Now they can look out two years, and plan some. At least now they have some certainty. “
Though he won’t be seeking re-election, McKeon was quick to point out he isn’t retiring. “I really don’t plan on retiring,” he said. “I can’t continue to be chairman anymore, but I want to continue to lead the fight against these defense cuts. So I think there will be other platforms, other places where I can speak out.” As one example, he mentioned continued involvement with the Reagan National Defense Forum held at the Reagan Presidential Library in his district.
McKeon also emphasized that he still has a year left as chairman, and he intends to make full use of it. His top priority: getting one last NDAA passed through Congress. McKeon has already begun shaping the contents of the FY15 NDAA with secret committee briefings on Afghanistan and counterterrorism.
He also intends to do a lot more traveling this year. McKeon has expressed frustration in the past with restrictions placed upon the use of military aircraft for congressional delegations trips known as CODELs. But now Speaker John Boehner has lifted some of those restrictions, allowing committee chairmen to travel. McKeon says he intends to take advantage of that not only to visit U.S. military installations abroad, but also “allied countries that are relying on us, so that we can assure them we share their concerns.”