Surprise retirement shakes up defense spending in Congress

Defense News | By: Joe Gould |  5 November 2019

House Appropriations subcommittee Chairman Rep. Peter Visclosky, D-Ind., and Rep. Betty McCollum, D-Minn. listen to testimony during a hearing on U.S. Air Force budget request for FY 2020, on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, April 2, 2019. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)

WASHINGTON ― Defense budgeting will see a major shakeup in coming months as the head of the House Appropriations Committee’s panel on military spending announced he will not seek re-election next year.

In a surprise announcement Wednesday, Rep. Pete Visclosky, D-Ind., did not give a reason for his decision. Visclosky, 70, kept a low profile but had a major impact on defense policy and was considered a friend by the defense industry.

“For my entire career I have worked to build support for our domestic steel industry and organized labor, secure investments in transformational projects and improve our quality of place to benefit the only place I have ever called home,” Visclosky said.

Visclosky’s announcement comes weeks after Rep. Nita Lowey, D-N.Y., and the chairwoman of the House Appropriations Committee, announced her retirement, which set off a race for her seat between Connecticut Rep. Rosa DeLauro, who chairs the subcommittee overseeing Labor, Health and Human Services, and Ohio Rep. Marcy Kaptur, who chairs the Appropriations Subcommittee on Energy and Water Development.

Who takes over the defense and full committee chairs will play a major role in Democratic leadership’s ambitions to raise the non-defense side of the federal budget.

Next in line for defense subpanel gavel is Minnesota Democratic Rep. Betty McCollum, the defense subpanel’s vice chair and the current chairwoman of the House Interior and Environment Appropriations Subcommittee. McCollum was traveling Wednesday and unavailable for comment, her spokeswoman said.

McCollum represents the suburbs of the Twin Cities, which hosts defense and aerospace firms 3M, as well as outposts of BAE Systems, Science Applications International Corporation, Raytheon, Honeywell and various smaller defense firms.

Jim Moran, a former senior House appropriator now with law firm Nelson Mullins Riley & Scarborough, said the Appropriations Committee shakeup comes amid a disruptive time for defense spending. There’s not only speculation that rising deficits will suppress future defense spending, but the president’s initial troop drawdown in Syria was “out of step with the defense establishment,” Moran said.

The race for the full committee gavel could be a free-for-all, but it favors DeLauro, a longtime ally of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

“Rosa, having chaired Labor-H, understands what the needs are. If she becomes chair she may have greater interest in rebalancing defense and non-defense,” Moran said.

Michael Herson, the CEO of American Defense International, a Washington defense lobbying firm, called Visclosky’s upcoming departure, “a big loss for the defense world.”

“Pete Visclosky was a friend of the defense industry. I always felt him to be an honest broker, accessible and a straight shooter,” Herson said. “He fought he good fight and always encouraged us to talk to members and influence members.”

Of McCollum, Herson said: “I like Betty a lot, and she has engaged the industry. Her staff has always been accessible and knowledgeable, and I think she would be a great subcommittee chair.”

In a statement, Lowey hailed Visclosky as one of the committee’s most respected voices, and a “champion for the women and men of our Armed Forces, and a supporter of a robust mix of defense, diplomacy, and development to keep our nation safe and strong.”

Though Visclosky’s seat was considered safely Democratic, the Times of Northwest Indiana reported that Hammond, Ind., Mayor Thomas McDermott Jr., was eyeing a primary challenge against him. After Visclosky’s announcement, McDermott immediately announced his intention to run for the seat.

In recent months, Visclosky joined other Democrats in their public criticism of Trump administration efforts to divert defense funding to his U.S.-Mexico border wall project―an issue that remains at the center of a partisan deadlock on the defense spending and policy bills for 2020.

In March, Visclosky made public a letter denying a $1 billion reprogramming request from the Pentagon to support the Department of Homeland Security’s request to build border barriers.

Visclosky also spoke up several months ago in favor of repealing the administration’s limitations on transgender service members. “With so much anger and so much hate in this world today, it is time to be kind to people,” he said.

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