In an era of partisan bitterness and gloom, Rep. Randy Forbes is feeling good. “Maybe I’m just too optimistic,” the chairman of the House subcommittee on seapower told me over the phone on his drive back to Washington last night. But after some positive feedback from GOP leadership, he said, “I’m incredibly optimistic” that Congress will not only manage to pass the annual National Defense Authorization Act — which it’s done for 52 straight years — but also to address the defense cuts known as sequestration. “If we can have the debate, we can win the debate,” he said.
“We’ve already started,” Forbes said. He fought for a chance to address the powerful Steering Committee “not because I was trying to run against Mac Thornberry for [House Armed Services Committee] chairman,” but to seize the rare opportunity of having all the GOP leadership in one room to hear his case against sequester. After his presentations, Forbes told me, more than a dozen people told him that he’d laid out a new way of looking at the problem that they hadn’t thought of before.
His next target is the GOP retreat in January, which will be Forbes’s first shot at the new crop of Republicans.
“When it comes to getting rid of sequestration, I’m still optimistic that there are a huge number of Republicans and hopefully a few Democrats that will say, that’s what we need to do,” Forbes said. “Even in lame duck [session], it’s vitally important that…we have a strategy for getting rid of sequestration as it applies to defense.” (It’s worth noting other observers have said there’s no chance of lifting the sequester on defense programs without addressing the sequester on domestic programs at the same time).
One area where Forbes sounded less optimistic: the next Defense Secretary. “Do you have someone who’s going to come in and just be a manager of decline? Or someone who’s going to say, ‘We’re going to turn this national defense around?'” Forbes asked. “Do we have a White House that’s going to allow them to do it [and] give a true and honest assessment?”
In particular, Forbes said, “I hope it will be someone who comes in there and will continue the innovative offset programs that Sec. Hagel was talking about.” That’s a reference to the offset strategy to develop breakthrough technologies to protect America’s technological advantage over potential adversaries, which Forbes says he is “incredibly excited” about. The seapower chairman has been talking about such issues for some time and has already scheduled a hearing on the offset strategy for this afternoon, “to prime that pump.”
The offset strategy will be the work of years, if not decades, Forbes said, but it’s the kind of big-picture thinking that’s vitally needed in the near-term budget battles as well. Opponents of defense sequestration need to take the debate “out of the numbers realm,” he said. Talking about defense in terms of dollars makes it sound like one more darn thing that the government spends money on. Talking about real-world strategies and rising threats, he said, can wake people up.
Pro-defense Republicans have been banging the drums about sequestration for a long, long time, but Forbes believes he’s making an impact, and not just inside the Beltway. On his drive up to DC yesterday, Forbes told me, he had to stop and pick up new contact lenses. His optometrist, “without any prompting at all,” started talking about Forbes’ years of warning about threats like China and calling for a clear national security strategy. You may not have gotten much traction in the past, the optometrist told him, “but they’re not laughing any more, are they?”