Key House Democrat Says Pentagon Will Have to Become More Transparent

Armed Services Committee ranking member Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash., says Democrats will bring "aggressive oversight" to Pentagon programs. Armed Services Committee ranking member Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash., says Democrats will bring "aggressive oversight" to Pentagon programs. Alex Brandon/AP

The Defense Department under President Trump has been too secretive, politicized, hawkish on nuclear weapons and discriminatory toward minorities, according to the Democrat most likely to take over the House Armed Services Committee.

Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash., the current ranking member, sent his caucus a letter on Nov. 8 announcing his unsurprising bid to chair the panel. In a statement to Government Executive on Monday, he outlined his priorities.

They boil down to tougher oversight of President Trump; fostering an inclusive military; curbing nuclear weapons; and spending defense dollars “more wisely.”

“Congress needs to live up to its constitutional role as an institution that performs oversight and holds President Trump accountable to the people,” Smith said. That means focusing on issues ranging “from corruption, fraud, waste, and abuse, to the politicization of the military, to [Trump’s] mismanagement of disaster response, to the lack of a consistent policy concerning civilian casualties, to [Trump’s] policies on Russia, and more.”

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Having argued previously against too large a surge in military spending, Smith promised aggressive oversight of the department’s spending and procurement practices. “We know there is waste in the Pentagon’s budget. It’s our job to find it.”

Calling for a more “responsible” approach to nukes, Smith argued that the current $1.5 trillion plan to build new nuclear weapons and upgrade our nuclear weapons complex is “unrealistic and unaffordable. We currently have a reliable nuclear deterrent that is more than adequate,” he said. “Focusing on President Trump’s new nuclear arms race would increase the risk of miscalculation, wreck the budget, and detract from our ability to invest in cyber, information operations, and our troops to counter serious threats to our security and efforts to undermine our democracy.”

On the ongoing quest to bolster military training and equipment readiness, Smith appeared to part from his Republican counterpart, Chairman Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, saying, “Simply spending more money on defense doesn’t make you safer, but spending wisely does.”

Breaking With GOP Priorities

Thornberry had focused on President Trump’s goal of raising military spending, pursuing acquisition efficiencies and on reorganizing the department’s headquarters to decentralize some functions and streamline back-office operations.

Smith promised to ensure that the department acknowledges climate change as a national security threat and works to minimize civilian casualties. He also said he would prevent Republican efforts to include discriminatory social policy riders and language that weakens  environmental laws in the National Defense Authorization Act.

In what appeared to be a reference to the Trump White House’s recent curbs on transgender people in the military, Smith said, “We need to make sure that our military can attract the best, most talented people by eliminating arbitrary and discriminatory barriers that narrow the field of qualified people who can serve their country.”

Promoting greater transparency in national security matters is a top priority. In an op-ed published in Defense One Oct. 28, Smith criticized the White House for preventing Defense officials from testifying before Congress on major issues, such as the annual defense budget request, and accused the White House of “aggressively” curtailing formerly standard interactions between Defense leadership and the press.

“Instead of providing our service members, the American public, and Congress with candid assessments of military readiness challenges and transparency about DOD’s plans to address them, DoD leaders have issued edicts chilling such discussion,” Smith said.

The Pentagon recently marked as classified the inspection grades for the safety, security, and control of nuclear weapons. It also discontinued the public release of a basic schedule for planned missile defense tests—until Smith got it overturned in the NDAA, as he did with the Trump policy of “scrubbing” the term “climate change” from documents. Finally, Smith argued, the Navy has ill-advisedly ceased public postings of its accident reports on pilot safety.

Smith, according to Dan Grazier, the Jack Shanahan Military Fellow at the nonprofit Project on Government Oversight, “has a good track record on transparency,” which would make a major difference between him and Thornberry.” He cited Pentagon efforts to skip releasing the mandatory public version of the classified annual report from the Pentagon’s director of Operational Test and Evaluation. “I anticipate this will be high on the agenda of a Chairman Smith,” Grazier told Government Executive.

Smith is less likely, the analyst said, to differ from his predecessor on acquisition issues, including the restructuring of Pentagon headquarters functions. “Thornberry’s reforms have not been subject to a great deal of controversy within the committee, and I don’t anticipate them being undone,” Grazier said. “Buying new weapons is a complicated process, so I generally applaud all efforts to try to reform and use best practices.”

“Some reforms seemed done in the best interests of the defense contractors rather than the people or our troops,” he said. “But there’s not too much daylight between Republicans and Democrats on these issues.”

The contracting community—which is enjoying a defense hike this year that most believe is likely short-lived—is taking a wait-and-see approach.

“Incoming Chairman Smith has served on the House Armed Services Committee for many years, and we believe he is well prepared to take on the role of chairman,” the 400-company Professional Services Council said in a statement to Government Executive. He “has been clear in his priorities and is familiar with Defense Department needs and opportunities. Our member companies have benefited from strong bipartisan support for policies that make the government a smarter buyer and better customer, while ensuring an effective, streamlined, and competitive federal contracting system that improves acquisition outcomes.”

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