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21 May 2003

"Overhaul Without Oversight," by Congressman Ike Skelton

(The Washington Post 05/21/03 op-ed) (890)


(This column by Ike Skelton, a representative from Missouri, who is
the ranking Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee, was first
published May 21 in The Washington Post. The column is in the public
domain. No republication restrictions.)

(begin byliner)


Overhaul Without Oversight
By Ike Skelton


I believe history will show that the swiftness of America's military
victory in Iraq was due in large part to the in-depth training of our
officers in strategy and plans and to the military's application of
that training in the operational plans developed in the months before
the war. Many people, including the secretary of defense, had detailed
lists of what could go wrong. We avoided those outcomes, partly thanks
to luck but mostly because of deliberate military planning that sought
out and compensated for potential risks and unintended consequences.

Last month, as Congress was departing for a two-week recess, the
Defense Department submitted a 200-page draft "transformation" bill
that requests extensive new authorities. It is not an understatement
to say that this bill, taken as a whole, is the most sweeping defense
reform legislation proposed since the Goldwater-Nichols Act of 1986,
which changed both the structure and the policies governing our
military. The only thing that is obvious and consistent throughout the
50 provisions included in this bill is the aggregation of power sought
for the Department of Defense, removing the legal restrictions and
congressional oversight that should safeguard against any abuses,
however unintentional. This approach is a rush to judgment that will
affect vast numbers of people and, in many cases, will enshrine bad
policy in law.

Major reassignments of constitutional authority such as this demand
the same sort of thoughtful foresight as a war plan. In fact, the
Goldwater-Nichols legislation took Congress four years to pass. The
armed services committees of both houses of Congress held dozens of
hearings and spent months drafting a comprehensive and bipartisan
bill. We did this because the scope of the legislation was broad, the
potentially unforeseen implications were numerous and the impact on
the lives of all those who serve this nation was enormous.

The House of Representatives is to consider and vote on a defense
authorization bill today that has much to commend it. It will
authorize $400 billion to ensure that our forces remain the best
trained and best equipped in the world. But it will also include large
pieces of the transformation package -- even though the committee has
held fewer than five hearings, and most of those with less than a
week's notice. Without the time to investigate and ask the tough
questions, we do not know what the implications of these changes are.
And so we, unlike Gen. Tommy Franks in Iraq, cannot build a plan to
avoid the worst outcomes.

The proposed legislation makes sweeping changes to both military and
civilian personnel systems. On the civilian side, the Defense
Department wants unfettered freedom to hire and fire its nearly
700,000 employees. Congress had a long, contentious debate over
similar personnel proposals when creating the Department of Homeland
Security. That legislation is barely being implemented now, and there
has been no opportunity to evaluate its results. The Defense
Department wants changes that are even more dramatic, including, just
as one example, the repeal of laws preventing nepotism. What
justification based on our national security or sound management
principles can justify that? What message does this send to the
hundreds of thousands who have dedicated their careers to the service
of this nation? And why do such changes need to be rushed through now,
when a successful military campaign has shown that the existing system
works?

The department also is requesting extensive exemptions from a host of
environmental laws that have helped safeguard the long-term health of
our communities and of the global environment. As a solidly
pro-military member of Congress, I believe the readiness and
exceptional training of our troops are of paramount importance and
should be taken into account in our environmental laws. But the
Defense Department has not yet made use of the legal remedies that
already exist to accommodate military readiness. Operations in Iraq
showed the exquisite capability of the U.S. military trained under the
current system. Changing the law at this point has not been shown to
be needed for military readiness, but it will certainly undermine the
legal structure that ensures the nation's environmental health.

The Constitution establishes Congress as a counterweight to executive
authority for good reasons -- to guard against the excessive
aggregation of any administration's power and to ask critical
questions that allow better policy and better law to be made. When we
in Congress are doing our jobs well, we ask what every American should
want to know: Why is this necessary and what are the downsides of
taking this action?

Without the ability to question and consider fully the implications of
what we do, we abandon the planning needed to protect our nation's
security and to protect those who serve their nation. We would not
accept that of the officers planning a military campaign. We should
not accept it from our political leaders either.

(The writer, a representative from Missouri, is the ranking Democrat
on the House Armed Services Committee.)

(end byliner)

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