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Column: Oversight, Is That You?

Jul. 28, 2014 - 08:15AM   |  
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(Karen Bleier / AFP)
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Over drinks with several government watchdogs, a recent House Armed Services Committee hearing almost immediately came up. (Of course it did, right?)

The hearing featured something journalists and analysts once considered routine that has become scarce: Republicans and Democrats on the pro-defense House Armed Services Committee teaming up to repeatedly hammer Pentagon officials. The bipartisan outrage — and deep frustration — was over a new counterterrorism program cooked up at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.

“That was really strange,” Danielle Brian, executive director of the Project On Government Oversight, noted as a few other watchdogs nodded in agreement.

Indeed. After all, leaders from both parties and both chambers in the post-9/11 era have said they view their primary function as giving the Pentagon and the troops what they need. Sure, there are vows of tough oversight, but few and far between.

Winslow Wheeler, a Senate aide on defense matters-turned-analyst, calls what congressional panels now produce “phony oversight.”

My Twitter page will reveal that I have publicly on a number of occasions referred to all four congressional defense panels as a “rubber stamp,” eager to approve national security officials’ every wish.

Lawmakers’ legislative actions don’t always match their critical rhetoric. The rhetorical hammer is replaced by, well, a rubber stamp. But the reaction to President Barack Obama’s proposal for a new $5 billion program to help US allies fight violent extremist organizations feels different.

Members of both parties are criticizing Obama and his top aides for an ill-thought-out program that steps on agency counterterrorism authorities painstakingly worked out since 9/11 — and that Republicans and Democrats warn might breach legal boundaries.

Even think tanks that typically side with Democrats on national security object.

“We can, and should, be doing more to combat terrorists, but the OCO [overseas contingency operations] budget is not how we should be funding it,” said Ben Freeman, a senior national security policy adviser at Third Way. “Counterterrorism is a basic function of the [Pentagon], and therefore, it should be funded in the base budget, where Congress has better oversight capabilities. Putting CT funding in the OCO budget also sets a very bad precedent that if we want something bad enough we can just ignore budget caps that are there to get our government back on a better fiscal footing.”

A Senate panel gave its approval to the program, but it also slashed the requested funding level to $1.9 billion and raised tough questions.

Since the White House sent up the war-funding request that houses the proposed CT program 114 days late, it avoided the typical congressional budget-cycle scrutiny. But the other three panels could still act — within their collective jurisdiction — on the broader OCO request.

If they do, they have a chance to further alter the White House’s CT partnership request. That’s to say perform a little oversight.

The rhetorical swords have been swinging in the direction of Obama’s controversial and potentially duplicative counterterrorism program.

Will lawmakers keep their hammers in hand, or reach for the rubber stamp? ■

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John T. Bennett is the senior congressional reporter for Defense News. Email: jbennett@defensenews.com. Twitter: @BennettJohnT.

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