By Connor O’Brien and Jeremy Herb
Rep. Adam Smith, the top Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee, has long criticized his colleagues for failing to make hard choices in the Pentagon’s budget.
The 10-term congressman from Washington state voted against the National Defense Authorization Act in May, hitting Republicans for shortchanging the Pentagon’s war account to pay for other programs, as well as for rejecting potential savings in the military health system and by retiring older weapons platforms. And he’s taken plenty of positions that a majority of his colleagues oppose, from actively supporting a new round of base closures to his recent opposition to building a new Long-Range Standoff Weapon.
Asked what he sees as the major hurdles to overcome a threatened White House veto of the defense policy bill, Smith singled out congressional efforts to halt the planned reductions of the Army and Marine Corps, calling the impasse a potential “dealbreaker.”
On fellow members’ continued refusal to support another Base Realignment and Closure Commission, he remains as frustrated as ever. “They’ll come up with every argument they can creatively come up with to support that unsupportable decision,” he said.
Over the longer term, however, Smith, 51, worries about the inability to finance the weapons programs the Pentagon currently has on the books. “We’re too committed to too many large programs right now,” he said, calling for a major scaling back of what he called “a trillion for modernizing a nuclear arsenal so we can destroy the world five times.”
POLITICO sat down with the Smith on Capitol Hill to discuss the defense budget, his goals for upcoming negotiations to reconcile House and Senate versions of the defense policy bill and his habit of making movie analogies. Here are some edited excerpts:
Where do things stand on the Pentagon budget after the Senate voted down amendments to add $18 billion to the defense and non-defense spending?
We have needs in defense. There is no question about it. But we have incredible needs in infrastructure and all these other places and Republican members of the House Armed Services Committee saying, ‘Well, I’m not a member of those committees. I’m a member of the Armed Services Committee. I worry about defense. I don’t worry about that other stuff.’ Well you’re a member of Congress, not just a member of the defense committee. So if bridges are falling apart, our water infrastructure is crumbling … and if you simply say, ‘Look, we’re going to spend whatever we have to spend on defense and ignore everything else,’ that’s not a very tenable position, and frankly that’s the divide that exists now between me and Chairman [Mac] Thornberry.
Now, since the Senate has refused to go that route, we’ve got to live with the money that we have. I think the hope in all this is, of all things, the Senate Appropriations Committee … I think the Senate Appropriations Committee model is what’s going to have to be the model for us to get an NDAA and a defense appropriations bill done.
What are the major issues heading into the House-Senate conference negotiations?
The biggest major issue is the laundry list of complaints that the White House has. And every year it’s always a game, because they threaten to veto every single defense bill that’s ever passed. And then you need to get down to, okay, what are the things that are really causing this? And the only other one that I’ve heard is our restriction on the reduction in the size of the Army and Marine Corps … is potentially a dealbreaker.
My sense is that our House bill got a lot closer to where DoD was comfortable with acquisition reform. The Senate still has a few things, like getting rid of the acquisition chief. So, I think the battle is going to be how willing are the majorities to work with the White House to get to yes and how willing is the White House to be flexible?
You’ve said the HASC bill avoids many hard choices. The Senate seems to be more inclined to make those choices. Are there proposals there that you could see yourself supporting in conference?
It’s tough. You know, I want to work with Mac. I want to be supportive of the House position, but you hit the nail on the head on the biggest problem that I have with being supportive of the House position. The House position is basically just spend it. Don’t make decisions. And that puts us in a box long term.
I know Mac Thornberry made a big point of saying, ‘Well, I’m not concerned about the long term. I’m concerned about the troops now. I want to help them now.’ … I guess my only analogy is, you know, you put enough gas in the car to get them out into the middle of the desert, so that they’re not stranded. Are you really helping them now if basically what you’re saying is I’m going to leave you in the middle of the desert without any gas? … So I disagree with that basic premise and I think what we need is a sustainable budget plan.
If a Hillary administration comes calling, would you be interested?
No, I love my job. I love being the ranking member on the Armed Services Committee, I love working on those issues. Have you ever been to Seattle? Why in the name of God would I want to live here if I can live where I live now?
You’ve had a difficult year with your hip surgeries, and it’s been hard to make the trips back and forth. You’ve never lost the motivation?
No. I’ve been a little pissed off that it’s been more difficult than it has been in the past. But I’ve never lost the motivation to do the job. I love doing the job.
On BRAC, are you encouraged or discouraged by the way the debate has gone this year after the Pentagon put out its infrastructure study?
Discouraged. I think Congress has decided that they, again they don’t want to make a tough political choice. Just like on every other aspect of the budget. And if you support a BRAC and a base winds up being closed in your district, it makes you vulnerable. So I think members are going to oppose a BRAC and they’ll come up with every argument they can creatively come up with to support that unsupportable decision.
Have you thought about what an Adam Smith NDAA would look like?
Oh gosh, yes. I’ll agree with Mac Thornberry, we don’t simply have to take what the Pentagon says. But I think it would have a lot clearer vision and make some more decisions. And look, it would contain some cuts that would not be popular. Because we have dodged every single one of those. And meanwhile, the Ford [aircraft carrier class] isn’t getting any cheaper, the F-35 isn’t getting any cheaper.
We are on pace right now, planning on buying equipment that we will not have the money to buy. We are the Thelma and Louise of the moment. And at some point, we have to turn the car around. … And I think, I’ll throw these ideas out and I’ll get myself in trouble in 1,000 different ways. I’ll offer the caveat that I’m open to other ones. Like the Senate Appropriations Committee did. They said we want this stuff, and then they went out and they cut other stuff. And good for them.
But I would say, to begin with, that a trillion for modernizing a nuclear arsenal so we can destroy the world five times based on the premise that there’s some scenario that if Russia attacks here and china attacks there, then we’ll need this? I think we need to spend a lot less money on our nuclear deterrence, a lot less.
Does that mean cutting a leg of the triad?
That I don’t know. I think it means buying fewer nuclear weapons as we go forward. I think it’s quite conceivable. There’s a lot of ways to deliver a nuclear weapon by air, other than building a brand new bomber. I’m a big fan of submarines because they’re obviously the most survivable element of the triad, but you can save a lot of money there.
I think we need to look very closely at the weapons systems that are most important, and figure out which ones we can cut now before spending billions of dollars. … The F-35 is too big to fail. The F-35 is not going away because it replaced 90 percent of our fighter attack aircraft. We have to try to avoid situations like that.
But we’re too committed to too many large programs right now. And I think also we should have in our bill some idea of what our strategy is, what are our priorities, what is the purpose of the various pieces of equipment we have?
You just made the Thelma and Louise reference. You always have a movie reference handy, like when discussing acquisition you reference Austin Powers and “sharks with laser beams.” Is there a method to this?
A method? It’s debate. It’s trying to make your point in an interesting way that will stick with people.
But are you a movie buff?
It’s just the way my mind works. I did debate in college, and one of the things I did learn is make the argument, then make the analogy. Because early on when I was in debate, I’d get so fond of the analogy that I’d make the analogy and people would be like, what the hell are you talking about? So make the point first and then you drive it home with an analogy that hopefully makes it stick in people’s minds.
Though in Austin Powers, instead of sharks, they settle for agitated sea bass.
Well if you want to take the analogy to its logical conclusion. Instead of buying the [Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle], the new Amphibious Assault Vehicles are agitated sea bass. I guess taking the analogy to the logical conclusion, you should have just bought the agitated sea bass in the first place because the sharks weren’t gonna be able to carry those laser beams.