Va. lawmakers blast Defense cuts

Lawmakers on Tuesday criticized the Pentagon’s decision to shutter a combatant command in Virginia, calling it a poorly timed decision that will cost American jobs.

“I’m very concerned. I just don’t understand the strategy,” said Rep. Buck McKeon (Calif.), the ranking Republican on the House Armed Services Committee. McKeon said that while he understands the need to cut the deficit, “I think cutting defense when we’re fighting two wars just doesn’t make sense.”

Defense Secretary Robert Gates announced Monday he would shut down the Joint Forces Command in Norfolk, Va., an operation that employs 5,000 people. The decision came as part of the Pentagon’s push to overhaul the Defense Department and reduce costs as the nation tries to control a budget deficit reaching trillions of dollars. 

Gates also pledged to reduce the military’s use of private contractors by 10 percent, a move that won praise from many Democrats but that also has immediate economic implications for states such as Virginia.

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The Defense secretary acknowledged his decision was “politically fraught.” While House Democratic leaders quickly praised the announcement, members of the party’s rank and file from Virginia, as well as the state’s two Democratic senators, slammed the proposal as arbitrary and ill-conceived.

Rep. Gerry Connolly, a freshman Democrat whose district in Northern Virginia employs thousands of private contractors, said he was “stunned” by Gates’s announcement. 

“I had no advance warning,” Connolly said to The Hill. “That’s obviously going to have a negative impact on my district.”

Connolly said Gates’s approach to reining in the use of private contractors was “mindless and arbitrary.”

“What we’re going to do is grow the federal government,” he said.

Gates’s announcement could imperil the reelection bid of Rep. Glenn Nye, a freshman Democrat who represents Norfolk. Nye released a statement Monday calling the proposal “short-sighted and without merit” and later joined Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell for a press conference denouncing the closure.

While the announcement clearly spells trouble for a few lawmakers, one Democratic strategist working on the 2010 campaign pointed to a silver lining, saying it would give those candidates an opportunity “to forcefully show their independence.”

Connolly seized that opening. “I respectfully disagree with my leadership on this issue,” he said.

Virginia Democrats complained that the possibility of closing the Joint Forces Command was not even raised in the most recent Quadrennial Defense Review, released earlier this year. One lawmaker said Nye was the only member of the state delegation to be warned about the closure — and that notification came only two hours before the announcement. 

Republican criticism of the closure went even further, as GOP lawmakers pointed out that the announcement of defense cuts was made a day before the House returned to vote on more spending for education and healthcare.

“What we’ve been witnessing is this administration allowing the budget for social programs to determine our defense spending, more than we allow our defense needs to determine that,” Rep. J. Randy Forbes (R-Va.) said. “I really think what we’re witnessing is the auctioning off on a piecemeal basis of the greatest military the world has ever known.”

Rep. Jim Moran (D-Va.) took a more circumspect view, suggesting Gates wanted to guard against Congress making even deeper cuts to the defense budget.

“It’s a pre-emptive effort to make sure there are not irrational cuts in areas that are essential to our national security,” Moran said.

Of the criticism from his colleagues, Moran added: “Some of it is reactive, and some of it is political, and some of it is expedient, but some of it is justified. It’s a concern, you know, that Virginia has been blessed with a very substantial defense industrial base, and so we’re more vulnerable when they start cutting the defense budget. But I think we’ll weather this.”

Anticipating some of the criticism, Gates said on Monday that he had reached out to the leaders of the authorizing committees in Congress and found they were “supportive.” He also emphasized that the money saved in closing the command and reducing contractors would be used elsewhere to modernize the Defense Department. “This is not about cutting the defense budget; this is about a reallocation internally,” he said.

Gates said one area slated for funding increases is the Navy; officials want to add hundreds of ships to the fleet, and they will be built in Virginia, perhaps softening the blow of the command closure.

“If, as a result of these efforts, I am able to add a billion or two billion dollars to the Navy's shipbuilding program of record, Virginia may well come out with a lot more jobs than it loses,” Gates said.

Gates characterized the moves as an attempt to make military spending more efficient during tough fiscal times while avoiding “steep or unwise” reductions that would leave the nation unprepared.

Yet it was the fiscal implications that had Democratic leaders cheering. “In meeting our solemn obligation to the security of all Americans, we must also uphold our commitment to future generations by pursuing a path of fiscal discipline whenever possible,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said in a statement. Commending Gates, she said he had taken “a hard look at the Defense Department’s budget and made tough decisions to cut expenses and freeze spending.”

The announcement also drew praise from House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) and the chairman of the House Financial Services Committee, Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), who has previously called for significant cuts to the defense budget. “I’m glad to see that people understand that this has to be part of the conversation,” Frank said.