- By Paul McLearyPaul McLeary is Foreign Policy’s senior reporter covering the U.S. Defense Department and national security issues. He joined the Washington office in 2015 after working for Defense News, where he was also on the Pentagon beat, and covered stories relating to Pentagon spending and the defense industry. While there, and in a previous incarnation as a New York-based reporter, Paul embedded with U.S. Army and Marine Corps units in Iraq and Afghanistan to cover ground combat operations, where he got inside a secretive drone program being run out of Bagram air base. He has also traveled with the U.S. Navy, covered NATO meetings in Europe with the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and stalked major international arms shows in Paris and London.
Vice President Mike Pence and his staff have been working quietly to get Congress to roll back the Defense Department’s year-old policy covering medical procedures for transitioning service members, according to sources.
In a flurry of last-minute activity, House Republicans have submitted three separate but identical amendments to the 2018 defense spending bill this week that would prohibit the Pentagon from using government money to “provide medical treatment related to gender transition.”
Two sources involved in the lobbying effort on the Hill say Pence and his staff have been reaching out to Republican members of the House to push for the amendment to be included in the Pentagon spending bill. This month, an effort by Rep. Vicky Hartzler (R-Mo.) to end funding was narrowly defeated in the House in a 209-214 vote, with 24 Republicans voting against it.
Pence, who opposed President Barack Obama’s repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell” in 2010, has deep ties on the Hill from his years as an Indiana congressman. As governor, he opposed a federal directive on transgender bathroom use in schools, arguing that the matter should be left to states.
The vice president “has been focused on health care,” Pence spokesman Marc Lotter told Foreign Policy. “I am not aware of him speaking to any members about this.”
Despite the amendment’s initial defeat on July 13, House Republicans have refused to give up the fight and on Monday and Tuesday submitted near identical amendments, each of which must be considered separately.
Rep. Scott Perry (R-Pa.) forwarded one with the most support and has gained the co-sponsorship of five other Republican lawmakers. The amendment says: “None of the funds made available by this Act may be used to provide medical treatment related to gender transition.”
Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) added another amendment stipulating that no funds may be used to conduct transgender sensitivity training courses or “screen members of the Armed Forces regarding gender reassignment surgery.” Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Texas) also filed an amendment to stop funding for the medical services.
Conservative groups like the Family Research Council, Heritage Action for America, and Alliance Defending Freedom have been working on the Hill to convince members to support the measure, and with votes coming this week, it’s unclear which way the vote will fall.
Opponents claim that costs for the medical treatments that transgender service members may pursue would cost the Pentagon more than $3.7 billion over 10 years. However, studies from the New England Journal of Medicine and the Rand Corp. show that projected costs would more likely fall between $24 million and $84 million over the same time period.
In a statement to FP, Rep. Hartzler asserted that the cost would be closer to $1 billion, but “steps must be taken to address this misuse of our precious defense dollars. This policy hurts our military’s readiness.” It’s unclear where Hartzler’s figures come from, and her office declined to comment on her estimate.
The Family Research Council did not respond to a request for comment on its figures.
Opponents of the measure say military readiness is not an issue that will be affected by continuing the policy as it currently exists.
“The Department of Defense does not want these amendments, and neither do we,” said Matt Thorn, the executive director of OutServe-SLDN, an LGBT advocacy group. “Transgender service members have been serving, openly and authentically, since October 2016 with no impact on readiness or lethality of the force.”
In a statement released through a spokesman on Tuesday, the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, retired Adm. Mike Mullen, said that “it would be unprecedented” for lawmakers to stop medical treatment for service members. “The military conducted a thorough research process on this issue and concluded that inclusive policy for transgender troops promotes readiness. I urge the Congress to respect the military’s judgment and not to breach the faith of service members who defend our freedoms,” the statement read.
Prior to this month’s failed vote on the 2018 defense spending bill, Hartzler had submitted and then withdrawn a more wide-ranging amendment that would have completely reversed the year-old policy that allows transgender service members to serve openly.
The Republican lawmaker told CNN in June that she decided to wait for Defense Secretary James Mattis to outline his own policy on the issue. Mattis had reached out to Hartzler on at least one occasion in an effort to convince her to withdraw the transgender funding amendment, to no avail.
On June 30, however, Mattis implemented a six-month delay in accepting transgender recruits into the armed forces, saying service leaders need more time to “review their accession plans and provide input” to him, spokeswoman Dana W. White said in a statement.
But advocates for transgender service members point out that Mattis’s decision halts a program that wasn’t causing any problems. “It’s not healthy for the military to whipsaw policy back and forth,” said Aaron Belkin, the director of the Palm Center, an independent think tank that has conducted research on sexuality in the armed services. “There’s concern in the community that the military spent a lot of time and money to train cadets [at the service academies] on the new policy,” and now it will be tossed aside.
“Thousands of transgender troops have been serving openly for over a year,” Belkin added, “and 18 foreign militaries incorporate them into their forces with no compromise to readiness.”
Photo credit: U.S. Army