Lawmakers: Expand the Joint Chiefs

Lawmakers are renewing their push to put the head of the National Guard at the same table with the top military advisers to the president and secretary of Defense.

Just before they left Washington, Rep. Nick Rahall (D-W.Va.) and Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) introduced legislation to elevate the chief of the National Guard Bureau to a member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, which is made up of the military heads of the Army, Navy, Marine Corps and Air Force.

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Adm. Mike Mullen is the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and, as the nation’s top uniformed officer, serves as President Obama’s primary military adviser.

The service chiefs serve dual roles: As members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, they offer advice to the president, the secretary of Defense and the National Security Council.

As the chiefs of the military services, they are responsible for the management of their respective military branches and answer to the civilian secretaries leading the services.

Lawmakers and the National Guard Association of the United States have fought for years to make the chief of the National Guard part of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Advocates of the Joint Chiefs expansion have already overcome some significant hurdles: The National Guard chief, Gen. Craig McKinley, has four stars on his shoulders and more power to weigh in with the secretary of Defense.

But McKinley still does not have a final say when it comes to allocating resources and mission planning for the Army and Air Force National Guard.

For nearly 10 years, the citizen-soldiers have been deployed multiple times to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan while also keeping up with homeland defense duties. The Guard is also on the front lines in the aftermath of natural disasters.

“The chief of the National Guard needs a seat at the table where decisions are being made that affect the lives, missions and resources of his people,” Rahall said in a statement to The Hill. “Protecting the home front is as critical as our global commitments. We must ensure the Guard has the representation and resources to perform its multiple missions and fulfill its constitutional role to our country.”

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The National Guard Association of the United States (NGAUS), which represents about 45,000 National Guard officers, will continue to ramp up its pressure on Congress and the Obama administration to allow the Guard chief among the Joint Chiefs.

During the 2008 presidential election, then-vice presidential candidate Joe Biden said that the Obama administration would make the head of the National Guard a part of the Joint Chiefs. Biden made that proclamation during the NGAUS’s annual convention.

“We are going to remind the administration” of what Biden said in 2008, said John Goheen, NGAUS communications director. Goheen also said that there has been “a certain reluctance” at the Pentagon to accept such a change for the Joint Chiefs.

While the Army and Air Force chiefs are aware of National Guard issues, they are more focused on the overall federal mission, Goheen explained. Therefore, the head of the National Guard should be among the Joint Chiefs so that he can “go eyeball to eyeball with his or her counterparts and talk to some of the unique missions and requirements that the Guard has,” Goheen said.

“Over the past nine years, Guard men and women have overcome decades of under-funding to respond to more missions in more places than at any time in our nation’s history,” retired Maj. Gen. Gus L. Hargett Jr., the NGAUS president, said in a statement this week. “They need a permanent seat at the table. They have earned a permanent seat at the table. This is simply the right thing to do.”

The fate of the Rahall-Rockefeller legislation is unclear. Congress has a full calendar when it returns to Washington in mid-November. Rahall indicated that the 2011 national defense authorization bill could be an option for the bill, but more likely it will be “one of the first bills we will introduce in the 112th Congress.”

The legislation likely will have some strong support in Congress, particularly from the large Senate and House National Guard caucuses.