Battle brewing over command authority

By Megan Scully

August 20, 2009

A Pentagon proposal to give the federal government greater authority to mobilize and command Army, Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps Reserve units during domestic disasters and emergencies is on a collision course with National Guard boosters on Capitol Hill who favor giving governors tactical control over those federal military forces and Guard troops.

The proposal was drafted as a possible amendment to the fiscal 2010 defense authorization bill. It would empower the Defense secretary to call federal Reserve forces to active duty for disaster response. Current law prohibits such forces from being activated to respond to natural disasters.

But advocates of states' rights argue that the federal government already has limited authority to call up federal Reserve forces for disaster relief and law enforcement purposes. Current laws also allow military commanders to respond to requests from local authorities to protect people and property in a crisis, they say.

Under the Pentagon's proposal, federal reservists -- as opposed to National Guard personnel who are ordinarily under state control -- would operate at the direction of the president. That is a major sticking point for governors and Guard supporters, who prefer to have governors direct all military forces in their states during emergencies.

In a letter Thursday to the leaders of the House and Senate Armed Services Committees, the National Governors Association said it "remained concerned" about the Pentagon's proposal and implored Congress to not act hastily.

"We strongly believe the consideration of any such proposals should be preceded by a discussion regarding the tactical control of forces serving inside a state during a disaster response," the NGA wrote.

Sens. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., and Christopher (Kit) Bond, R-Mo., have sided with the group by introducing a bill this summer that would give governors tactical control over federal military forces deployed to support National Guard forces during domestic emergencies.

The bill, which makes other changes to boost the National Guard's status, would "reduce confusion that sometimes exists when there is a domestic emergency about how National Guard forces, serving under a governor during an emergency, will interact with active-duty forces that serve under the president's command," Leahy said on the Senate floor in June.

In a statement, Bond, a former governor, similarly argued that giving governors tactical control over all reserve forces would improve responses to national emergencies.

"Too often, state leaders are unable to deploy reserve units within their state when a disaster occurs," Bond said this week. "Giving state governors tactical control of federal troops in their states is an important states' rights issue and will help military resources be used more swiftly and effectively to respond to disasters here at home."

But the Pentagon argues that its proposal is intended to more effectively mobilize federal assets during an emergency.

"This authority would not apply to the Army or Air National Guard, but would greatly increase the number of personnel available to DoD when civilian authorities request department assistance," Paul Stockton, assistant secretary of Defense for homeland defense, wrote in a July 20 letter to the governors.

Not surprisingly, the Senate bill drew strong praise from the National Governors Association, which praised the legislation in general -- and the provision on control of federal forces, in particular -- in a July 13 letter to Leahy and Bond, who are co-chairmen of the Senate National Guard Caucus.

In an Aug. 7 response to Stockton's letter, the governors argued that the Pentagon's proposal "would invite confusion on critical command and control issues, complicate interagency planning, establish stove-piped response efforts, and interfere with governors' constitutional responsibilities to ensure the safety and security of their citizens."

Neither the Leahy-Bond provision on tactical control nor the Pentagon's proposal was included in the House or Senate versions of the fiscal 2010 defense authorization bill. At this stage of the process, conference negotiators are likely to punt the issue to next year's session.

By Megan Scully

August 20, 2009