WASHINGTON — In his first major speech as House Armed Services Committee (HASC) Chairman, Rep. Mac Thornberry struck a defiant tone and made clear the panel will block any White House and Pentagon plans it deems unwise.
The Texas Republican stepped into the spotlight on Tuesday, using a morning speech at the American Enterprise Institute to signal the 2016 2015 budget cycle likely will be a repeat of the previous year. Last year, the congressional defense committees rolled back many of the Obama administration's plans to retire weapon systems and alter personnel policies.
For those who believe Congress should simply swallow hard and approve the executive branch's plans, Thornberry had a simple message: Don't get your hopes up. And he delivered a forceful explanation of why he believes the Constitution — and the men who wrote it — and historical precedent are on his side.
"Some people expect lawmakers to just cut the check and not ask too many questions," Thornberry said. "But Congress should not give any president a blank check, nor should Congress be a rubber stamp. It is the branch of government most responsible for the character and the contours of our military.
"In the Constitutional Convention, the founders gave certain powers to the Congress, which they viewed as the branch closest to the people," he said. "James Madison said that "these powers ought to exist without limitation, because it is impossible to foresee or define the extent or variety of national exigencies."
Thornberry dived dove into the 228-year-old document, saying one part gives Congress "at least six specific duties" on defense and national security matters.
"Through those authorities, Congress determines the size, shape and soul of the military. The president, then, determines how to use it," Thornberry said. "It's not clear that everyone understands our constitutional system. Congress is sometimes criticized for exercising its proper role in defense."
He pushed back on critics of lawmakers' decision to block an Army plan to shutter the country's lone remaining tank production line. To the HASC chairman, the Constitution gives the legislative branch the power to make such a "judgment call."
"Just last month, the US Army sent 100 M1 Abrams tanks back to Europe in response to the Ukraine crisis," he said. "That might be some evidence that Congress made the right call."
He also pointed out it was Congress — not the White House — who forced the Pentagon into buying the Predator armed drones that would later become President Barack Obama's preferred tool against al-Qaida and other groups.
"They didn't want it. It was counter-cultural. Pilots were not so fond of pilotless aircraft," he said. "But few people today would reverse that call."
Thornberry acknowledged that Congress, at times can be "parochial" and make "the wrong call."
Additionally, Thornberry reiterated his and other congressional hawks' calls for the remaining defense sequester cuts "to be fixed."
The biggest problem with the across-the-board cuts "is about whether we have the capability to do what the nation needs and the times demand."
"It is also very much about the increased danger that comes from diminished training, aging equipment, and a tempo of operations that stretches our people and their families too far," he added.
Thornberry said "no one has the magic formula" for the kind of fiscal deal that would roll back the pending cuts to defense — and domestic — programs.
"What there's not agreement on is exactly how to fix it," Thornberry said, adding he likely would vote for any plan that could get 218 votes in the House, 60 in the Senate and the president's signature. And on such a plan, Thornberry said Obama cannot simply "sit there and throw tomatoes." He wants Obama to take part in any talks about a sequester-addressing plan.
Meantime, the HASC chairman also called the Pentagon's buying system too "gummed up."
"It seems a wonder sometimes that anything comes out the other end," he said, sending a message to program managers and industry. "To have a military that is both strong and agile means that we cannot tolerate the delays and cost overruns that have plagued our procurement system.
Thornberry has been leading a committee study on Pentagon acquisition reform. He said recommendations could be ready "this spring," and might be rolled into the 2016 nationaldefense authorization bill (NDAA).
Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain, R-Ariz., also wants to use the annual Pentagon policy bill to push buying process changes.
Thornberry said don't expect a piece of "2,000-page legislation" that would magically fix military acquisition. He made clear he wants acquisition changes to be implemented over time, and after ample "back and forth" and "feedback" from other members.
What's more, Thornberry vowed the panel under his leadership will conduct "aggressive" oversight.
"Our oversight must be fair, aggressive, and thorough as the people's — and the taxpayers' — voice on national security. This is as the framer's intended," he said.
Some defense and congressional observers believe the defense committees have conducted less oversight in recent years. Thornberry signaled he wants to reverse that.