Rep. Mike Gallagher, PhD, R-Wisc., discusses how best to make a public case for more defense spending and tradeoffs, priorities, a new authorization for the use of military force as well as Afghanistan with Defense & Aerospace Report Editor Vago Muradian at the Reagan National Defense Forum at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, Calif. Our coverage as sponsored by L3 Technologies and Leonardo DRS.
Representative Mike Gallagher
Reagan National Defense Forum
Vago Muradian: Welcome to the Defense and Aerospace Report. I’m Vago Muradian here at the Reagan National Defense Forum, the nation’s leading gathering of defense leaders, whether uniformed, civilian, industry or in the think tank world here at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, California. We’re talking to Representative Mike Gallagher, a Republican from the sunny state of Wisconsin.
Dr. Mike Gallagher: Very sunny right now.
Mr. Muradian: It’s very sunny right now. At some point there’s sun shining on Wisconsin, so you’ve got that going for you.
Dr. Gallagher: Sure.
Mr. Muradian: Former Marine. Combat experience as well as a PhD from Georgetown University. So Dr. Gallagher, if I may ask you this question. I know people don’t say that as often to you as they likely should.
In your panel discussion, one of the points you made was at this time of challenge when the National Defense — I keep calling it the National Defense Panel, but it’s not. It’s the National Defense Strategy Commission, argues for nearly sustained trillion dollar budgets. Politically that seems like it’s not really a tenable case.
At the same time, there is this sense that while we’ve been telling American troops that they’re the best and certainly their sacrifice is appreciated, the Chinese and Russians now have capabilities that outgun us in a lot of ways. As Bob Work would say, out-stick us.
You talked about the importance of having this conversation with the American people in an honest, non-alarmist way. The last administration started it. What’s the right way to have this conversation, both on defense spending, but also on the realities that whatever war we may get into is going to be something that is going to be extremely different and potentially much more brutal and deadly than what most people in their mind’s eye are imagining?
Dr. Gallagher: Great question, and it’s certainly not simple. I did not mean to suggest it was in my panel remarks. I think it starts with the geopolitical case, basically pointing out that for the last 25 years if not longer, we’ve enjoyed an era of unchallenged U.S. supremacy and unipolarity, and now that’s changing. We have increased threats from Russia, from China, from rogue actors like Iran and North Korea. In almost any scenario, even in sort of the money ball scenario, it’s going to require you to devote more resources if indeed you’re interested in maintaining U.S. primacy.
I think what goes along with that is making the case to the American people for why that’s a good investment over the long term and why a strategy of extended deterrence for presence actually over the long term saves you money because it doesn’t drag you into useless and unnecessary wars. You’re allowed to shape events prior to them devolving into major crises.
I think add onto that the constitutional case which is to say the only mandatory function of the federal government is to provide for the common defense, and that’s what we should do first and foremost, and then we can argue over everything else.
And I would say, for lack of a better term, the moral case of if we are indeed going to send 18 and 19 year old kids from Green Bay, Wisconsin downrange, then we owe it to them to give them a clear mission and the best training and resources that they can possibly have to get the job done and come home safe.
So it’s not an easy thing to do. It’s clear to me that we’re failing to do it right now. The fact that we’re considering trimming $33 billion from an already inadequate top-line budget suggests to me that we haven’t adequately made the case to the American people.
Mr. Muradian: Do you think Mac Thornberry, the Chairman of the House Armed Services Committee; Jim Inhofe, the Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee; and Jim Mattis are going to be meeting with the President and Mick Mulvaney, next Tuesday to press the case for more money. There are folks who are skeptical that’s going to happen. What do you think is going to be the outcome of that meeting? What do you hope is going to be the outcome of that meeting?
Dr. Gallagher: Well, I have to commend Chairman Thornberry and Chairman Inhofe for their recent OpEd pointing out the necessity of continuing the rebuild we’ve made a down payment on over the last two years, and I hope that’s an opening salvo in a broader messaging campaign.
My hope is that the President comes to agree with that argument. I think there are people in the administration, perhaps Mulvaney who has a different view of the world, and certainly, there are any number of areas where we need to be aggressive in reforming the Pentagon, in being responsible stewards of the taxpayer money. But even the most ambitious reform effort, as the National Defense Strategy Commission points out, isn’t likely to reap immediate dollar rewards, right? Some things we’ve done, for example, in recent years like changing the retirement system have actually come with up-front costs in the hope that over time they save money. So it’s not just a matter of let’s say transferring $30 billion from one account to the shipbuilding account.
So at the same time, we reform aggressively, we need to make sure that we’re putting the Pentagon on a reliable budgetary path.
I think staring down another Continuing Resolution, sending that signal of uncertainty to the Pentagon really just costs us money over the long term because contracts get canceled, contracts can’t start, et cetera, et cetera. You get more waste.
Mr. Muradian: One of the, your generation of Member has talked about the importance of actually doing things differently. And now we’ve got more and more combat veterans as lawmakers, right? On the other side of the aisle Seth Moulton is one of the people who has a similar reputation to yours for being intelligent, dynamic, been there and gotten the T-shirt. And just in honor of you we put Marine I behind you.
Dr. Gallagher: I appreciate that. It’s the closest I’ll ever get to Marine I.
Mr. Muradian: If President Trump watches this, give Dr. Gallagher a ride.
Talk to us a little bit about both parts of this equation, right? On the one hand, how do you get more money for defense? There are those who say it’s entitlement reform, but it’s not entitlement reform. It’s going to mean increased taxes because we still have a massive deficit load. Americans are living longer. There are a whole bunch of challenges that actually complicate the federal spending picture as you know.
On the other hand, we’re also going to have to make much clearer choices, because at the end of the day innovation means, as [Kori Schake] so rightly says, what you’re not going to do because of what they’re going to do.
So talk to us about the two poles of this. On the one hand, what are some of the major muscle and very innovative different things do we need to do as a nation to fund the level of defense we need, and yet even at a trillion dollars, there’s a recognition that we might not be actually developing the right capabilities we need which will require tough choices. Talk to us about the two poles here.
Dr. Gallagher: I think the first thing I’d say is that all this is bound up in broader congressional reform. Right? We also sort of simultaneously need to change the basic budgeting and appropriations process in Congress so as to avoid these last second CRs or omnibus bills that no one reads. I, myself, am in favor of biannual budgeting. The National Defense Strategy Commission talks about moving towards a five-year budget for the Pentagon. We have a FYDP but this would be a different thing.
Politically, that’s difficult but at some point, we’re going to have to recognize that the challenges we face in military funding are inextricably linked to the process breakdowns in Congress and I have strong thoughts about that. That’s one thing to say.
Two, listen, the fact is that entitlements are eating up an increasing amount of the federal budget. It’s about 70 percent right now. It’s going to be 100 percent or we’ll spend, you know, more money on interest on the debt than we’ll spend on the Pentagon in a few years on the current course. So we’re going to have to make some hard choices.
A big part of that is health care costs. If you look at sort of the delta in military spending between the Reagan buildup and the present day, if you hold it constant, FY17 dollars, during the Obama cuts we actually spent a trillion dollars more money. Why is that? Personnel costs, largely. Now you can also argue that we were involved in wars and those cost money. There are a lot of people that are growing impatient with the wars in Afghanistan, but that’s what, at most, $46 billion a year. At the same time, we know according to GAO that there were $60 billion in Medicare fraud two years ago alone.
So there’s a lot of areas where you can start to reform and get that money, but again, it’s not as simple as just transferring it from health care to the military. It’s going to require a multi-sort of prong effort over time.
Finally, I’d say, I think the area where we can probably get the most efficiencies over the long term externally is by working ever more closely with our allies. I know the question of our alliance, our allies and the extent to which they share the burden abroad has come under scrutiny in recent years, but the promise of having a network of allies that countries like Russia and China can’t match is that we have friends and partners that bring their own capabilities to bear on the fight.
And certainly when you look at countries like Japan which is investing more and more in its defense and changing key parts of its constitution. Even countries that aren’t our allies but we work with and we sell ships to like Vietnam, no friend of China. You can start to stitch together a pretty comprehensive strategy where we’re not doing everything by ourselves, and we have an integrated strategy with our Five Eyes partners and other partners in the Indo-Pacific to make sure China doesn’t dominate the region.
So I’m not suggesting to you there’s a silver bullet you can, you know, fire, and then all of a sudden you’ve solved the military, but the uncertainty doesn’t help; the unwillingness to talk about what’s driving up our debt over the long term doesn’t help and denigrating our allies certainly doesn’t help at the same.
Mr. Muradian: And what are some of the choices you would make? What are some choices that we need to come to grapple with? At a conference like this you hear everything about the future of the aircraft carrier, it’s a forced entry by the Marine Corps, and you know, what are some of the places where we need to actually sit down? Because there’s a sense that war games actually don’t highlight flaws and weaknesses, rather are used to reinforce the existing model as opposed to saying hey, there are bits of this model that may no longer be relevant anymore.
Dr. Gallagher: I think the most immediate, let’s just talk about [inaudible] right now before we go to long term. One, whether it makes sense to disaggregate our space functions into a space force which will cost more money in almost any scenario. I’m sort of of the opinion that it really makes sense to pay more attention to space and streamline our capabilities, but a separate service might exacerbate readiness problems we have in the force right now.
Two, what is the theory of victory in Afghanistan right now? I was there last year and it seemed like I got the same briefing that everyone’s gotten for the last 17 years which is to say this fighting season is going to be decisive. I’m going back in a few weeks hopefully.
Mr. Muradian: You were part of one of those decisive fighting seasons once upon a time.
Dr. Gallagher: That’s right. I went to Iraq, not Afghanistan.
Mr. Muradian: That’s right, sorry.
Dr. Gallagher: But there were decisive fighting seasons there too.
Mr. Muradian: That’s right.
Dr. Gallagher: So I think, you know, while I’m probably on the side of let’s maintain a presence, people are asking some pretty important and long overdue questions, and over the long term you look at the bigger budgetary pie. It’s largely a health care crisis we face in this country and it’s not a health insurance crisis. Right? I wish both parties would sort of recognize that they have a myopic focus on how we finance health insurance. Let’s talk about driving health care costs over time, otherwise, we’re just going to keep spending more and more money on a worse and worse system of health care in this country.
Mr. Muradian: And let me ask you about authorization for the use of military force, about which you are very passionate.
Dr. Gallagher: Yes.
Mr. Muradian: Talk to us, two-fold. Why this authorization is absolutely critical and why things have to change. And on the other piece of the equation, does the United States need to fundamentally reconsider its relationship with Saudi Arabia? You were part of the delegation that was in Halifax. Unfortunately, we didn’t get a chance to talk there so I’m glad we’re talking here. We have a better backdrop for you.
Dr. Gallagher: You were talking to more important people than me in Halifax.
Mr. Muradian: No, no, I wasn’t.
Dr. Gallagher: You don’t want to waste time with a freshman congressman.
Mr. Muradian: Absolutely not. If you recall, it was out there on the ramp that we had a great conversation with you two years ago.
Dr. Gallagher: Yeah.
Mr. Muradian: But talk to us a little bit about why that’s important and what has to be next with Saudi Arabia. Because there seems to be a growing unanimity among Members about not just the Yemen war and the AUMF, but also Saudi Arabia.
Dr. Gallagher: Listen, we’re using a short authorization passed a week after 9/11 to kill people that weren’t even born on 9/11 that belong to groups that have been officially excommunicated from al Qaida. Along with the fact that in places like Syria and Yemen, the administration’s making the argument, as did the Obama administration in Libya, that this doesn’t trigger hostilities. It doesn’t rise to the level of hostilities. Therefore, the War Powers Resolution clock is not triggered.
All of this adds up to a simple conclusion which is that we’ve given the executive branch a blank check when it comes to how they kill people all over the world. That’s constitutionally perverse, in my mind.
Now I don’t think passing an AUMF is going to solve everything. I think it also requires us to actually do basic oversight, exercise the power of the purse. I actually think there’s an unintended consequence to what was tried in the Senate, is that it weakens the War Power Resolution. The War Powers Resolution doesn’t require the Senate or Congress to pass a disapproval. The clock runs out after 60 or 90 days, right? So you’re actually weakening the standard if you go that route.
But again, the Pentagon’s saying it doesn’t rise to the level of hostility, therefore there’s no clock.
So a long way of me saying Congress is growing increasingly irrelevant on foreign policy as a result of this and we do damage to our constitution over the long term, so it’s important we have that debate. And I, for example, would be willing to put a time restriction on an AUMF. I would not be in favor of geographic or restrictions, but if you had a five or seven year sunset I think that would be useful because it would force Congress in five or seven years to come back to the table and say okay, is what we’re doing abroad in terms of kinetic activities working or not? So that’s one thing.
On the Saudi Arabia question, obviously, we can’t sort of divorce ourselves completely from Saudi Arabia. The long pole in the tent in the Middle East and the reason we have a historic level of cooperation between the Sunni Arab Gulf States and the Israelis is the threat from Iran. That’s the primary threat to us in the Middle East and rolling back Iran is our primary concern. But at the same time, I do think it’s counter-productive to that effort, as well as our effort to get tough on China, for example, for its human rights abuses to give the impression that we’re sweeping this under the rug for, because we buy a lot, or because Saudi buys a lot of defense equipment from us we can ignore their human rights abuses. No.
We can do both. We can have tough words for Saudi Arabia, and indeed take tough action against them while also preserving the geostrategic cooperation that we must have with them over the long term, and I’m not sure we shuck that balance. I am awaiting, as many of my House colleagues are, a full briefing from the administration on that. I know my Senate colleagues have gotten some of that. I don’t understand why the CIA wasn’t part of it. But this thing can get further off the rails really quickly.
When I met with MBS a year ago there were all these laudatory profiles, Tom Friedman was saying it was peace in our time. And I just had this impression of while he was doing a lot of things that we’ve been calling for for a while, he was also moving very quickly. And taking action against members of the Royal Family that recently we were considering as potential future kings. So this is, as David Ignatius recently wrote, a version of Game of Thrones over there, and it could get even uglier than what we’re seeing right now.
Mr. Muradian: Mike Gallagher, Member of Congress from the great state, Republican Member of Congress from the great state of Wisconsin, PhD, and former Marine. Thanks so much for joining us.
Dr. Gallagher: Thank you, sir. I appreciate it.