Pentagon & Congress

Key debate on military protest response, budget priorities set to happen behind closed doors on Capitol Hill

The biggest defense news on Capitol Hill this week will be taking place behind the scenes rather than in public view, as lawmakers grapple with the military’s response to recent nationwide protests and their own plans for next year’s Pentagon budget.

On Monday, Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy, Army Chief of Staff Gen. James McConville and District of Columbia National Guard Commander Maj. Gen. William Walker will brief members of the House Armed Services Committee in a non-public meeting.

The session was originally scheduled for late last week, amid concerns that guardsmen may have overstepped their roles as security support for D.C. police responding to some of the massive racial equality demonstrations outside the White House in recent days.

The protests were sparked by the death of George Floyd, a black man prosecutors say was murdered by a white Minneapolis police officer.

Since then, Pentagon officials appear to have tamped down President Donald Trump’s suggestions that active-duty troops should be brought in to help handle the work, creating a massive show of force to “dominate” the streets of major cities across the country.

But House Armed Services Committee members have said they still have lingering questions about how those discussions progressed, and whether guardsmen were put in an uncomfortable political role instead of their traditional support response.

Democratic members are also sparring with Defense Secretary Mark Esper and Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Mark Milley, after committee Chairman Adam Smith, D-Wash., vowed to bring the Pentagon leaders to Capitol Hill for a full public hearing on the issues this week.

Esper and Milley have thus far refused, although Pentagon officials said they are negotiating scheduling issues for a possible future appearance.

“The DoD legislative affairs team remains in discussion with the HASC on this request," Navy Cmdr. Sean Robertson, a Pentagon spokesman, said last week. "In the meantime, DoD has committed to provide Army Secretary McCarthy, Army Chief of Staff Gen. McConville, and D.C. National Guard Commanding General Maj. Gen. Walker to brief the committee next week on the presence of the National Guard in Washington, D.C., this past week.”

Smith and 30 other Democratic committee members called Esper’s refusal to appear this week “unacceptable.”

Several members of the committee have vowed to include the issue in the annual defense authorization bill. Subcommittee mark-ups of the massive military budget policy measure are scheduled to begin on June 22.

The Senate Armed Services Committee is beginning its mark-up of the authorization bill this week, with the first two subcommittee section votes scheduled for Monday afternoon. The full committee mark-up will take place starting on Wednesday.

Unlike their House counterparts, however, nearly all of that work will be done behind closed doors. Senate committee officials have said in the past that they can more quickly and efficiently navigate the hundreds of legislative issues within the bill if they keep the work out of public view, to allow seamless transition between classified and non-classified topics.

The only portion of the Senate authorization bill work to be made public will be the personnel subcommittee mark-up, set for Tuesday at 2 p.m. The hearing will be streamed through the committee’s web site, as restrictions on public access to the Capitol complex remain in place because of the coronavirus pandemic.

The House Armed Services Committee will have a public hearing on a separate topic later this week: Ellen Lord, Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition and Sustainment, will testify on Wednesday about the impact of the ongoing pandemic on the defense industrial base.

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