Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen, R-N.J. (Alex Wong / Getty Images)
When one assumes the gavel of a congressional committee that annually oversees nearly $600 billion for one of the world’s largest militaries, he becomes a very popular person.
That is the case for Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen, R-N.J., who says he has had no shortage of visitors since November, when he took over the House Appropriations Defense subcommittee, previously chaired by the late Rep. Bill Young, R-Fla.
“People from, obviously, the civilian leadership have been through here, every part of the uniformed services, every part of our intel community, every part of our industrial base,” Frelinghuysen said.
Those visits will no doubt continue as the subcommittee gets closer to finalizing its version of the 2015 US defense appropriations bill. All eyes are on how the 10-term congressman’s subcommittee might propose amending the Obama administration’s $496 billion budget plan.
In an April 30 interview in his Capitol Hill office, Frelinghuysen gave few glimpses of any changes he is considering. But he did make it clear that, after years of failing to pass most annual appropriations bills, he is determined to pass a final defense spending bill.
Q. How difficult are you finding it to write your bill with these spending caps in place?
A. We want the sequester to go away. We were given allocations. And we live within that allocation. But we certainly want the sequester to go away.
Q. Do you think there is any chance of that happening before there is a new president?
A. I just do not know, I just do not know. I think the Appropriations Committee, we ought to take advantage of whatever bipartisan spirit there is. And our committee is inherently nonpartisan and bipartisan. I mean, I think we are bound and determined to sort of pull up the Appropriations Committee so that people have a greater appreciation for what we do. We actually have to deliver the product.
Q. There is a group of lawmakers who favor across-the-board cuts in every circumstance. Most of them are in your party. Have you seen any shift from members of that camp on defense spending?
A. Over the last four or five years, we have been sort of called the “disappropriations committee.”
We do not have earmarks any more, so the glue that might have assisted us in bringing the bill across the finish line — any bill across the finish line — is not there. So we have to appeal — and I do and the leadership does, too — to what I would call people’s better nature.
And I am as interested in reducing the federal debt, and it sort of sounds rhetorical. I do believe in making every dollar count. So when I hear about a defense program that is going amok — the mile markers have been ignored or the baseline has been totally disintegrated — then our credibility is on the line.
Q. Some folks have said that oversight is dead on defense issues. Do you agree?
A. I can assure you, we are doing oversight. We were very, very aggressive in our hearings. Sometimes, I think it is just more a focus on what is going on in the [Armed Services Committee]: saving this program, saving that program. [The committee has] challenged each of our services on all of their budget submissions. Yeah, we work very closely with the authorizers, but in the final analysis, we have to have a balance between the needs of all the services.
Q. On weapon programs, you mentioned oversight. The F-35 Lightning II fighter jet program certainly has had some troubles. Is that an area where you might look at ordering some changes?
A. I think it is important that the program be successful. I mean, it may be the one aircraft that we will be needing for the next 30 or 40 years. So understandably, it is one of the largest defense projects we have ever had.
Certain people have been taking some potshots at it, but we need to get it right. We need to, I think, proceed carefully just to make sure that every dollar counts.
Q. So the Pentagon should just pay whatever it costs to get an F-35 fleet?
A. We have an obligation to our international partners. We are not alone in this investment.
Q. Do you think 2015 is the last year for overseas contingency operations (OCO) budgets?
A. Ingrained in the supplemental, the OCOs, are the protection of the 30,000 men and women who are all volunteers serving in Afghanistan. No matter what our military presence is, there has been a lot of retrograde there. A lot of stuff has been destroyed, a lot of stuff has been airlifted out of there. We still have a responsibility to protect the soldiers that are there and the investments we have made there.
We have made substantial investments, and that could rapidly deteriorate and fall apart and we find ourselves back in the same sort of a situation. And if it is not al-Qaida resurging, it might be the Taliban putting in even more strict Sharia law than certain parts have already been subject to.
Who would think that we would have this faceoff with the Russians here? You know, for a while, people were discounting the need for our basing in Germany. And now people say, “Wait a second here. Putin is spitting in the president’s eye. Maybe we need to take a look at our military posture in Europe.”
So I think we will always need some ability to provide supplemental dollars. We will need some sort of an account. I am not sure what we will call it.
A part of that relates to Pakistan, part of it relates to a lot of other things that are important to us in the area in terms of the Afghanis having some ability to sort of stand up on their own.
Q. You were in Afghanistan recently. How many US troops will be needed after this year?
A. I am not sure what the number is, but then, of course, [no matter] what we do, our allies are withdrawing their own troops. They are not waiting on our timeline here. They are getting out.
I think if you look at the 34 provinces in Afghanistan, how many of them do we actually have any physical presence in, either we or our allies? There is a lot of instability in Afghanistan, not only continuing things happening in those western areas. So we need to have some presence to counter that.
But then understanding we have sort of forgotten what has happened in Iraq. Fallujah is still not in [Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s] hands. Anbar province still is problematic — that might be a kind way to say it. And we do not want to have that sort of thing happening in Afghanistan if we should leave too quickly.
Q. What is your assessment of President Barack Obama’s administration and its dealings with Congress?
A. I am disappointed there has not been more communication, collegiality, on something so basic as our fulfilling our constitutional responsibility to provide for a strong national defense. I am very surprised that the outreach has been so minimal.
Q. Do you support keeping the US Air Force’s A-10 close-air support aircraft fleet alive?
A. I am not going to take a position. I think we need to be careful before we retire anything. I am not going to take a position.
Q. When looking for budgetary offsets, will you propose offsets from within or outside of the Pentagon’s budget?
A. Whatever we are going to do, we are going to do it very closely with [House Armed Services Committee leaders Reps.] Buck McKeon [R-Calif.] and Mac Thornberry [R-Texas]. We are not going to do anything unilaterally here without touching base with the four corners.
Q. Will there be a limit on amendments when your subcommittee and the full committee marks up your bill?
A. I think [Appropriations Committee Chairman Rep.] Hal Rogers is insisting on open rules. There is always a gang out there that wants to have all sorts of amendments and ... just wants to savage this and savage that. But I think our leadership would like to preserve the open rule process as regular order.
So I cannot tell you what the future brings, but I do think the way we proceed — and I think we could distinguish ourselves by an open, educated process — would be a pretty good harbinger for getting rid of the sequester. ■