WASHINGTON ― The House Armed Services Committee organized Wednesday with Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Ala., replacing retired Rep. Mac Thornberry as the panel’s ranking member.
The day before a wide-ranging interview with Defense News, Rogers, an original proponent of the Space Force, criticized White House press secretary Jen Psaki for punting on a question about whether the newest branch of the military, established by former President Donald Trump, would have a future under President Joe Biden.
Rogers thought Psaki wasn’t contrite enough the next day when she told reporters that the new service has the “full support” of the Biden administration. Still, Rogers said, “I was glad to see her acknowledge what I already knew, and what the administration has said before. That is, they’re fully supportive of the Space Force and its worth.”
Beyond a controversy surrounding the Space Force’s future headquarters and the branch’s public relations crisis, he discussed a number of topics including his support for creating a cyber service academy, the repercussions for Republicans like him who voted against certifying Biden’s victory, this year’s looming fight over defense spending and how he’s already working with Chairman Adam Smith, D-Wash.
With Democrats in a slimmer majority and fractured on national defense issues, the panel’s top Republican will have a strong hand in the process of drafting the next National Defense Authorization Act.
This interview was edited for length and clarity.
Gen. John Raymond, the head of the Space Force, joked to reporters that his own mother doesn’t understand what the branch does. Will the Space Force’s image problem create issues in securing funding?
As you’ve probably seen before, it has very unanimous support in the House Armed Services Committee and overwhelming support in the Senate Armed Services Committee. As long as it’s got congressional support, we’re going to be fine. One of the things Gen. Raymond and [Joint Chiefs of Staff Vice Chairman Gen. John] Hyten are working on is to try to declassify a lot of the information about capabilities in Russia and the United States when it comes to national security and space. That will go a long way to helping us inform the American public why this [branch] is necessary.
Now that you’re the ranking member, will you push declassification in the next NDAA?
I’m firmly convinced Gen. Hyten and Gen. Raymond are serious about it, but you can bet that I’m going to be the yapping Chihuahua that reminds them that it needs to be done.
Now, we’re in the second year of the Space Force’s existence, and the sooner we can inform the American public about what the threats are, the more they’re going to embrace this and expect us to get after it in a serious fashion like we are.
It’s really hard to get the Pentagon to do things differently. There is an entire bureaucracy that depends on the classification process ― their jobs, their livelihood ― and they don’t want to see it diminished. For a lot of people, it makes their life easier: They don’t have to explain things that people can’t see, so they over classify, and this is a problem across all the services. It’s an incredible problem with the Space Force because so much is classified.
It’s a hindrance that people don’t know that your traffic signals are controlled by national security satellites, that your bank accounts are, that the positioning of drones ― you know, all these things depend on the satellites, and our enemies are using that as a vulnerability. Once we can start letting people know more about that, they’re going to get it. The American public is smart.
Rep. Jim Cooper, D-Tenn., was your co-champion on the Space Force. He’s now among lawmakers who have alleged political influence in the Trump administration’s selection of Redstone Arsenal in Huntsville, Alabama, as the future location for Space Command headquarters. Colorado Republican Rep. Doug Lamborn is calling for an investigation by the Government Accountability Office. Do you support the call for a probe?
I’m fine with looking at it. I don’t think it’s going to yield anything other than what the Air Force has already said: They did a thorough review and this was the solution they thought was best. But I’ve been around in this town long enough to know that the losers on these kind of projects always scream “politics.”
It shouldn’t be determined by whether your state voted blue or red; it should be determined by which location offers the best benefit at the least price for this endeavor. So I’m not bothered. I’m sure it’s going to yield the result that we’ve already seen, and they can have at it as far as I’m concerned.
The Biden administration has set aside some last-minute decisions by the Trump administration. Could this get a do-over?
I think it would be difficult. I think they’d have to have objective evidence as to why it should be reversed, and I don’t think that exists. And the [current] secretary of defense has told me this train has left the station and he sees no reason to revisit it.
That doesn’t mean he shouldn’t look at it, but I think he’s just being objective like I am. I know of no evidence this was a political decision. I’ll take the secretary of the Air Force at her word: [Former] Secretary [Barbara] Barrett said this [basing decision stemmed from a] thorough, objective review. I think she meant it. I don’t think she was being political at all.
You are among some 147 Republicans who voted against certifying President Biden’s victory, and right on the heels of President Trump’s supporters storming the Capitol building. It’s become the focus of a bitter rift inside the Republican conference ― Republicans Liz Cheney and Matt Gaetz, who disagree on this, are both on the HASC ― but it has also deepened divisions between Republicans and Democrats. As maybe the most powerful Republican on defense matters in Congress, how do you plan to work this historically bipartisan committee back to center when the House is so clearly drifting apart?
Well, we’ve been pretty divided for a long time. I don’t think that’s a new phenomenon. But it’s not bothered us on the Armed Services Committee. We remain a very bipartisan committee. If you watched this morning’s organizational meeting, you heard the tone from both Chairman Smith and me, that we value and treasure the bipartisanship that our committee has demonstrated over the decades that it’s existed.
We intend to keep it moving in that fashion, and we’ve demonstrated that already. The establishment of the seventh subcommittee was something that we did in a bipartisan fashion. Even though it was Chairman Smith’s idea, I embraced it. And then when it came to [approving a waiver for Defense Secretary] Lloyd Austin, that could have become very contentious, but I told Chairman Smith that I was going to support that this time. I feel strongly that since a Republican president had gotten a waiver for his nominee, it would be unfair to say a Democrat couldn’t. But after this one, I don’t think we should have any more waivers come before us for a long time. Plus, I think a Gen. Austin, now Secretary Austin, is a fine candidate. I think he’s going to do a good job, and I personally support him.
But that greenlighted it for our conference, and there were some 370 votes for Gen. Austin’s waiver. That could have gotten political very easily, but it’s not the nature of our committee. Our committee historically dealt with threats as threats and not as partisan issues, and I expect that to continue to be the case. I’ve seen no indication from Chairman Smith or his staff that they’re going to act differently.
Now what other committees do — I’m hearing the same thing that you’re hearing, and they can do whatever they want. I serve on one committee, and that’s the Armed Services Committee, and that’s what I care about.
Have you heard Democratic lawmakers are reluctant to work with Republican colleagues who voted as you did on the Electoral College?
Not on the Armed Services Committee, but I have heard it’s happening with some of the other committees. It’s unfortunate because the truth is there hasn’t been a president elected since the turn of the century that hasn’t had some challenged votes on ballot certification.
This ballot certification issue, there was no thought on our part, other than maybe two members who actually thought there was a chance of overturning the election. It was a protest vote about the concerns that we had about the election integrity and transparency, but there was no expectation at all that it was going to overturn the election.
Early on, I condemned the violence but I also recognized President Biden as the next president and wished him well. This was a protest to say, “We’ve got to clean up these questions about election integrity in future elections,” and the best way to demonstrate that was a protest vote. That’s all it was. There was nobody trying to overturn our democracy, other than the people outside who had apparently planned that for a long time.
As somebody who’s long been enmeshed in national security issues, did the Jan. 6 Capitol riot change your thinking about national security?
I’ve been on the Homeland Security Committee since it was established, and the last cycle I was the ranking member. I’m very familiar with homeland security and the concerns, and to answer your question: No, it didn’t.
It really deeply disturbed me that our Capitol Police and the Metropolitan Police had not done a better job of planning and preparing for what was not one of the bigger protests in our city. We now know that they had intelligence about some of the groups that were coming, that were going to be armed and threatening activity. They did a terrible job of preparing for that, and that’s inexcusable. And that’s why some people have resigned and they’re talking about a 9/11-style commission to look at it. We should never have allowed that situation to metastasize into what it did, and if we had better planning and manning, it wouldn’t have.
I am very unhappy that we still have National Guard troops here. I’m of the opinion that needs to cease and desist; this is a police matter, and the Capitol Police and the Metropolitan Police ― and if necessary, the state police ― can be brought in to deal with any concerns that we have. But this idea of keeping 7,000 troops around the Capitol until March is unacceptable from my perspective. That is not the purpose of our military troops.
What is on your agenda as ranking member?
No. 1 is clearly defense spending: to make sure, at a minimum, we don’t see [reductions]. When Gen. Austin came before us for his briefing, I asked: “Are you going to continue the position that [former Defense] Secretary [Jim] Mattis had, as well as the National Defense Strategy Commission, that we maintain at least a 3-5 percent increase in defense spending each year in the foreseeable future as we continue this process to rebuild our military?” He said he would. I’m hoping that the Biden administration does as well. So I want to see increases just to keep up with the cost of living, but I will fight vigorously any cuts in defense spending.
No. 2, I want to keep the focus of our committee on the threats coming from China. Granted, I know we’ve got concerns with Russia and North Korea and Iran and others, but there is nothing more compelling than the threats arising from China.
And third — and this is part of the modernization effort — I want to see us better train and equip our service members, and particularly cyber personnel, with cyber and artificial intelligence capabilities. I’m going to pursue the establishment of a digital or cyber service academy that will start by training the folks who work in the Department of Defense, either active-duty, Reserve or civilian, and then hopefully be able to grow to people in other departments, whether it’s Homeland Security or Treasury or whatever.
The cyber threat is real and we are not prepared for it, and I intend to keep a bright light on that issue and start building an infrastructure to deal with it. I think there’s some public-private partnerships that you’re going to see manifest that will help us in that endeavor.
Do you expect a flat defense budget from the administration?
They always come after defense spending, and they just have to know that there’s going to be a fight because we need, according to the National Defense Strategy and the Pentagon historically, at least a 3-5 percent increase. Even if we keep level funding, it has a diminishing impact because of annual cost-of-living increases.
I expect them to try to cut it, and I intend to remind [President Biden] at every turn that we are going to need an increase if we really want to take on the challenges that we’re facing around the world. It doesn’t matter if Social Security and Medicare and Medicaid are solvent if we’re dead. There’s people trying to kill us around the world, and we just can’t ignore that fact.
With the narrow Democratic majority in the House, Chairman Smith will again need Republican votes to pass the NDAA. Are there red lines or big asks from Republicans, whether it be blocking efforts to cut the Ground Based Strategic Deterrent or anything similar?
Chairman Smith has brought up [GBSD] every year, and he didn’t even have the full support of his side of the aisle on that issue. I fully expect them to bring it up again. Republicans will oppose it, and about half the Democrats will too.
But you’re absolutely right: They will never be able to pass an NDAA without Republican votes, particularly on the floor. That’s been demonstrated historically. There’s just a large contingent of the Democratic left wing that will never vote for an NDAA.
Adam Smith knows that, and he’s good about working with us and trying to get us to a good place, so I really don’t anticipate us having a problem getting a bill out of committee and out of conference that Republicans can’t support on the floor ― not from Adam Smith. I think he’s going to be somebody I can work with. He’s going to get pressure from the Biden administration and from the left wing of his conference like he did last cycle. But we were able to get a bill passed, and I think we will again.
Where will the fights be?
The nuclear triad is safe. The Pentagon, I think it’s been demonstrated under Democrat or Republican defense secretaries, is committed to the triad. And I know that the majority in the House Armed Services Committee and the Senate Armed Services Committee are committed to it. I think that’s not going to be the area that we fight over.
The area that we fight over is going to be the economic pressure. We’ve been borrowing enormous sums of money as a country to survive this pandemic economically. And once interest rates start ticking up, when the economy starts roaring again, the pressure to service the new debt is going to be enormous. But we cannot cut defense spending. We’ve got to keep it at minimum level and hopefully increase it. And that’s going to be hard to do as these economic pressures build up.
Joe Gould is the senior Pentagon reporter for Defense News, covering the intersection of national security policy, politics and the defense industry. He served previously as Congress reporter.