Military panel likely to get Adam Smith – and his desire for budget cuts – as chairman

Rep. Adam Smith, a Washington Democrat, is set to head a powerful committee that sets policy for the U.S. military – and make a push to cut defense spending.

Smith is currently the top Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee. Because Democrats won a House of Representatives majority Tuesday, Smith is expected to become the panel’s chairman in January.

In October, the Trump administration told the Department of Defense to expect a cut for the 2020 fiscal year, which begins Oct. 1, 2019, that would shrink its budget from $716 billion in 2019 to $700 billion.

Smith said in September that $716 billion was excessive.

“It is premature to discuss numbers for the defense budget now, when a new Congress hasn’t even been formed,” Smith told McClatchy on Friday.

“However, it is my firm belief that, given the $22 trillion debt and trillion-dollar deficit produced by the Republicans’ tax cuts, the Pentagon is going to have less money in the future. We need to scrub the defense budget to better reflect that reality,” he said.

But Dan Grazier, a Marine Corps veteran who researches the military for the Project on Government Oversight, a nonpartisan watchdog organization, cautioned not to expect many changes to military funding under Smith.

Despite the perception that Democrats want to cut defense spending, he said, the Democratic-controlled Congress at the beginning of former President Barack Obama’s first term passed the costliest defense budgets in years.

“Part of it is I think that unfortunately Democrats are a little concerned about being really soft on defense,” said Grazier, who said a military funding cut would rein in the Pentagon’s “irresponsible” spending decisions.

Smith did say that he wants to curb nuclear weapon spending.

“We need to ... recognize that the current $1.5 trillion plan to build new nuclear weapons and upgrade our nuclear weapons complex is unrealistic and unaffordable,” he said in a statement. “Focusing on President Trump’s new nuclear arms race would increase the risk of miscalculation, wreck the budget, and detract from our ability to invest in cyber, information operations and our troops.”

Rep. Adam Smith, a Washington Democrat, is currently the top Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee. Thanks to Democrats’ winning a House majority Tuesday, Smith is expected to become the panel’s chairman in January. Andrew Harrer Bloomberg file

Smith also wants to spearhead an effort to root out mismanagement of military spending.

“We know there is waste in the Pentagon’s budget. It’s our job to find it,” he said. “We also need to make sure the Pentagon can be audited so we know how the money is being used.”

In policy matters, Smith’s views on who should be allowed to join the military contrast starkly with Trump’s. In 2017, Trump announced a policy banning most transgender people from serving. Courts have blocked the ban.

“We need to make sure that our military can attract the best, most talented people by eliminating arbitrary and discriminatory barriers that narrow the field of qualified people who can serve their country,” Smith said.

Even if Smith is serious about wanting to cut spending, Grazier said, Democrats have only so much power in a divided government. Republicans will still control the Senate next year.

“When you’re in the opposition, he definitely talks a good game, as does everybody,” Grazier said. “It remains to be seen what he does when he’s in charge.”

Grazier said it’s more likely that Smith will scrutinize how current budget allocations are being used by the military. Smith’s goal of conducting an audit of the Pentagon aligns with Trump’s.

Smith has experience dealing with and representing members of the military. His Washington district, which now encompasses Bellevue and parts of Seattle and Tacoma, used to include Joint Base Lewis-McChord, the largest military base on the West Coast.

Republican Don Anderson, the mayor of Lakewood, a town adjacent to Lewis-McChord, said Smith has remained involved with the base and would be a strong choice for Armed Services chairman.

“He’s very smart, and he is particularly well-informed with respect to defense issues, and has been for some time,” said Anderson, a Navy veteran.

Anderson admires Smith’s willingness to support issues that are unpopular, such as another round of military Base Realignment and Closure. Even though Lakewood’s economy is bolstered by its proximity to a base, Anderson doesn’t see Lewis-McChord as being targeted. And he thinks closures of unnecessary bases are necessary to free money for more important causes.

“The majority of our council’s veterans, myself included, have been out there when there wasn’t enough jet fuel to fly the planes,” he said. “If you can take that money and apply it to readiness, our soldiers and sailors can do the nation’s business and come home safer.”

Democratic state Rep. Kristine Reeves, who lives in Smith’s district, likes that Smith wants to hold the Department of Defense fiscally accountable.

“I think there’s an assumption if you’re a pro-military supporter that you’re going to be pro-DoD and do whatever they say,” said Reeves, who co-chairs a military committee in the state legislature. But Smith is “very focused on problem-solving over partisan politics.”

Kellen Browning, 202-383-6102, @kellen_browning