When Texas Republican Mac Thornberry takes over as chairman of the House Armed Services Committee in January, you could be forgiven for thinking it's a like-for-like swap with current Chairman Buck McKeon, a California Republican who will step aside after five years in the role and leave Congress after 22 years. After all, both are known to be strong advocates for the defense industry and count some of the world’s biggest military companies as their top campaign contributors.
But under the departing McKeon, who says is retiring is because of partisan gridlock, among other reasons, Republicans on the committee failed to lift the lid on forced sequestration of the Pentagon budget, a mechanism introduced in 2013 that forces caps on federal spending for 10 years. The GOP has been broadly opposed to the military caps as part of sequestration, which many Republicans say are an obstacle to countering the resurgence of Russia as a military power and fighting ISIS.
But the goal that eluded McKeon may be reached by Thornberry, who said he wants procurement reform as a precursor to any ditching of the sequestration caps. In laypersons' terms, that means rationalizing spending.
Thornberry has one major asset: In an age of extreme partisanship, he is a long-serving member of Congress who has made friends across the aisle and has a record of pragmatic choices. He is probably “the least partisan leader of any committee in either side of Congress,” said James Carafano, vice president for national security and foreign policy at the conservative-leaning Heritage Foundation.
Thornberry, a 56-year old lawyer, has been in Congress since 1994, when he won the previously Democratic 13th District of Texas, as part of the Newt Gingrich-led Republican sweep of the first Clinton midterms, flipping 54 seats from the Democrats in the House of Representatives.
Since then, Thornberry -- whose West Texas district leans heavily to the right -- has had a strictly conservative voting record, but the National Journal Congressional Almanac described him as pragmatist rather than an ideologue. He is “a relatively moderate conservative Republican,” wrote a defense analyst in DoD Buzz.
“He’s been on the committee for a long time and he’s a really serious student of the issues,” Carafano said. “If nothing else, people will really get a sense that you have an adult in the room, from an expertise perspective.”
That expertise may serve Thornberry well with his own party, too. “While HASC GOP members may want to lift the budget caps on the Defense Department, it’s clear that outgoing Chairman Rep. Buck McKeon couldn’t muster the votes to convince the GOP leadership it was a good idea,” said industry publication Breaking Defense, but Thornberry is "an effective partisan who can needle his Democratic colleagues without alienating them. One of the things to watch is just how deftly the new HASC chair will be able to muster his GOP colleagues.”
But rather than merely call for the sequestration cap to be removed, Thornberry may push the military to do more with less.
The new chairman is “interested in acquisitions — the way we buy things and how we pay for them,” defense budget analyst Gordon Adams said, as quoted by DoDBuzz.
At a Center for Strategic and International Studies seminar on "getting more defense for our dollar" in 2013, Thornberry said the Pentagon and defense contractors should streamline their purchasing process. "If automakers can take a car from concept to customer in less than 24 months; if a computer company can change its manufacturing requirements in a day; if Boeing can develop and field a new commercial aircraft in less than five years, then we should be able to do better than we are doing now for the men and women who risk their lives to protect us and defend our freedom," he said.
Thornberry played a key role in establishing the Homeland Security Department after the 9/11 attacks. He eventually became chairman of the Armed Service Committee’s terrorism panel in 2011. His steady rise through the ranks has attracted interest in the defense world: In the 2014 cycle, defense companies contributed the most to his campaign finances, around $320,000 out of $1.5 million he raised, according to votesmart.com.
But according to Carafano, Thornberry’s ideas of more efficient defense spending might be on hold until after the next presidential election: "This time that he has now will be for planning and might best be described as a band-aid until a new president is elected,” he said.
In the meantime, the man in charge of defense in the House of Representatives is expected to play nicer with the current president than his predecessor did. “I don’t expect quite as much tub-thumping” from Thornberry against the Obama administration as was the case with McKeon, Adams said.