Mikulski to Pentagon: Respect Congress

Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., admonished Pentagon leaders on Wednesday for not treating members of defense oversight committees seriously or respectfully. She said they make national security decisions without adequate congressional notification, and she demanded a change in tone from those across the river. Mikulski said defense committee chairmen seem to get plenty of attention, but ...

Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images
Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images
Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images

Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., admonished Pentagon leaders on Wednesday for not treating members of defense oversight committees seriously or respectfully. She said they make national security decisions without adequate congressional notification, and she demanded a change in tone from those across the river.

Mikulski said defense committee chairmen seem to get plenty of attention, but backbenchers are shut out. When they do get answers from Pentagon officials, she said, it feels as if the officials are just "checking a box."

"We have been deeply troubled from time to time that we have been treated in a dismissive way," Mikulski said, in a budget hearing of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense.

Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., admonished Pentagon leaders on Wednesday for not treating members of defense oversight committees seriously or respectfully. She said they make national security decisions without adequate congressional notification, and she demanded a change in tone from those across the river.

Mikulski said defense committee chairmen seem to get plenty of attention, but backbenchers are shut out. When they do get answers from Pentagon officials, she said, it feels as if the officials are just "checking a box."

"We have been deeply troubled from time to time that we have been treated in a dismissive way," Mikulski said, in a budget hearing of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense.

"We want meetings, and we want meetings that count. We don’t just want meetings that give updates for decisions that were made," she told Navy Secretary Ray Mabus; Adm. Jonathan Greenert, the chief of naval operations; and Gen. James Amos, the commandant of the Marine Corps.

"The chairmen are always treated with respect. Everybody wants to come and see us, have meetings, exchange coins, and we all kumbayah together. But at the end of the day, there are members here that want to be on this subcommittee so they can get simple answers about what’s going on in their own state."

It’s not a new complaint from Capitol Hill. On April 8, House Armed Services Committee Chairman Buck McKeon, R-Calif., complained about learning from the press, rather than the Pentagon, that Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel wanted to dramatically alter Article 60, the section of military law relating to the power of the so-called convening authority. McKeon, who liked the idea, issued a public warning to Hagel, suggesting the secretary’s robust plans for defense reform stood a better chance if Pentagon officials visited the HASC altar more often.

"Chairman McKeon sees eye-to-eye with Secretary Hagel on much of his reform agenda. The prospects for success would be much improved if members and staff learned of important policy developments from senior commanders or DoD officials, not the press," said a committee press release, at the time.

Here is the transcript of Mikulski’s complaint, lodged at the top of the hearing: 

MIKULSKI: …And I would just like to also note that one of the other things in taking over the chair — Mr. Secretary, I spoke to you — we really need those within the department to have a real understanding of this committee and every member, not only the full committee chairman and the vice chairman and the chairman of the subcommittee and Senator Cochran but all of the committees. We have been deeply troubled from time to time that we have been treated in a dismissive way. The chairmen are always treated with respect. Everybody wants to come and see us, have meetings, exchange coins, and we all kumbayah together. But at the end of the day, there are members here that want to be on this subcommittee so they can get simple answers about what’s going on in their own state. They worry about…the moving of airplanes, the fact that a meeting with us is checking the box.

So I bring this up with you. I brought it up with Hagel, I brought it up with Carter, Dempsey and Winnefeld. I’m bringing it up with you. Could you let them know that in a choice — that we don’t see a choice between guns or butter? We just see that we need to be able to defend America. So when they — we want meetings, and we want meetings that count. We don’t just want meetings that give updates for decisions that were made. Secretary, I talked with you about it earlier. I know I have your word to correct this problem. I believe you are a man of honor and that we will address these, and the committee will appreciate it.

Kevin Baron is a national security reporter for Foreign Policy, covering defense and military issues in Washington. He is also vice president of the Pentagon Press Association. Baron previously was a national security staff writer for National Journal, covering the "business of war." Prior to that, Baron worked in the resident daily Pentagon press corps as a reporter/photographer for Stars and Stripes. For three years with Stripes, Baron covered the building and traveled overseas extensively with the secretary of defense and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, covering official visits to Afghanistan and Iraq, the Middle East and Europe, China, Japan and South Korea, in more than a dozen countries. From 2004 to 2009, Baron was the Boston Globe Washington bureau's investigative projects reporter, covering defense, international affairs, lobbying and other issues. Before that, he muckraked at the Center for Public Integrity. Baron has reported on assignment from Asia, Africa, Australia, Europe, the Middle East and the South Pacific. He was won two Polk Awards, among other honors. He has a B.A. in international studies from the University of Richmond and M.A. in media and public affairs from George Washington University. Originally from Orlando, Fla., Baron has lived in the Washington area since 1998 and currently resides in Northern Virginia with his wife, three sons, and the family dog, The Edge. Twitter: @FPBaron

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