Did Congress Use ‘Must Pass’ Legislation to Stick It to a Pentagon Official?

December 17, 2019
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Even as a provocative, high-profile fight over impeachment is taking place, Congress is still working out a number of important issues. The House passed a prescription drug bill, promised to pass the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA), and has a deal on year-end spending legislation. One other question on tap–to be decided on today–is the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) that passed the House on December 11, 2019, by a 377-48 margin. The NDAA has wide bipartisan support and has historically been considered, by both parties and chambers of Congress, one of the precious few "must-pass" measures every year.

The headline of this NDAA bill is that it authorizes $738 billion in Pentagon spending for FY2020, creates the United States Space Force (USSF), and extends paid parental leave for more than two million federal workers. However, the NDAA also contains a number of lesser profile provisions buried in the legislation, including – what a former Senate staffer called – a ‘whack’ at Michael D. Griffin, Undersecretary of Defense for Research and Engineering. It appears that Griffin has pushed certain policy positions and made some administrative decisions that upset Republican Senators on the Armed Services and Appropriations Committee. What’s more, Griffin is rumored to have a strained relationship with Senator Jim Inhofe (R-OK), chairman of the Senate subcommittee with jurisdiction over the NDAA, as well as full Committee Chairman Senator Richard Shelby (R-AL). These are not men with whom to trifle.

Why are these key, influential Republican Senators irritated with the Undersecretary?

Griffin has been engaged in a behind the scenes power struggle with Ellen M. Lord, Undersecretary of Defense for Acquisition and Sustainment. He’s raised eyebrows with his plan to restructure the Pentagon putting the Strategic Capabilities Office under the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. Likewise, the Undersecretary ran into obstacles over his order to cancel a missile defense program. While giving the keynote address at the 2019 Defense News Conference, Griffin said the failed program set U.S. missile defense efforts back “a few years.”

Several Washington insiders believe Griffin is under the microscope on Capitol Hill, and Congress took a swipe at Griffin in the NDAA.

Where’s the proof?  For starters, the NDAA reshuffles the Under Secretary line of command, putting Griffin – now one of three Under Secretaries all with comparatively equal powers – at the bottom of the line. Senators inserted a provision:

Sec. 902 titled “CLARIFYING THE ROLES AND RESPONSIBILITIES OF THE UNDER SECRETARY OF DEFENSE FOR ACQUISITION AND SUSTAINMENT AND THE UNDERSECRETARY FOR DEFENSE FOR RESEARCH AND ENGINEERING."

Sec. 902 demotes the position of Undersecretary of Defense for Research and Engineering (Griffin) under the Undersecretary of Defense for Acquisition and Sustainment. (Lord).  The explanation, according to Hill sources, is that Members of Congress, frustrated by Griffin’s actions, wanted to send him a clear message. The prior organization chart had the Secretary of Defense at the top, the Deputy Secretary of Defense second, then three Under Secretaries at comparable levels of the organization chart.

More proof? Sec. 902 is not the only provision aimed at the Undersecretary.

Sec. 837 of the NDAA cuts funding for Griffin’s office until he submits a report on the appropriate defense acquisition guidance. According to Hill sources connected to the committees of jurisdiction, Griffin angered some prominent Pentagon contractors due to his recurrent lack of guidance. This new NDAA makes changes that favor Under Secretary Lord over Griffin, and some Hill veterans are speculating that certain powerful Members of Congress are unhappy with Griffin’s work. It’s a rare occurrence for Congress to use the ‘the power of the purse’ to rein in a single government official, yet here the old adage ‘if it walks like a duck …’ seems absolutely appropriate.

While Congress continues to debate several ‘big ticket’ items this Christmas season –impeachment, drug pricing, spending, et al. – we still have to keep an eye on the dealings and contracting at the Pentagon.

Our national defense and military readiness depend on keeping our elected officials and those under their purview accountable to the American people. Much is at stake… and much is changing. With the USSF, we’ll have a new, sixth branch of the United States Armed Forces expected to maintain military operations in outer space. Let’s hope that Members of Congress are above making petty grievances part of the legislative process. 

To borrow the famous line from James Tiberius Kirk, we are truly going boldly “where no man has gone before.” We need political leadership to get us all there safely.


Jerry Rogers is the founder of Capitol Allies and the host of “The Jerry Rogers Show” on WBAL NewsRadio. Twitter: @CapitolAllies.



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