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Gates, DoD and Congress: A Brief Examination of Congressional-Defense Relations

By Antwain Leach

leach1A power struggle in Washington, which until very recently has surprisingly gone under the radar, is one which has been playing out between the Department of Defense (DOD) and Congress. In his newly released memoir, Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War, former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates references the unique relationship between these two enormous institutions. Gates unabashedly makes little attempt to mask his contempt for Congress as he describes how he went through great pains to promote a working relationship with the nation’s legislative branch of government. There are many explanations which collectively contribute to this increasingly strained relationship between Congress and the DOD, but the purpose of this article is to examine only a few of these underlying factors as described by Gates himself in his latest memoirs.

Gates’ highly anticipated book was released late last year amidst much fanfare. Having served as Secretary of Defense for the last two presidents, many people were in earnest to gain insights as to how the leadership styles between Presidents Bush and Obama compared with each other. Due to the intense focus on these connections, the nature of the relations formed between DOD and Congress under Gates’s leadership, have been largely overlooked.

Upon reading through his memoir, I was left with the general impression that he fundamentally misunderstands the multi-faceted role of Congress. Further reflection helped me to realize however, that spending over 20 years working in different government agencies can cause one’s general impressions of government, especially in regards to Congress, to be quite complex. Utilizing the experiences that Gates touches upon in his book as a point of discussion is useful because it uniquely highlights different aspects of the simmering tensions between Congress and DOD. Having served in the administrations of eight different presidents, his perspective can provide useful insights into this often overlooked area of federal administration.

One reason that Gates was chosen by George W. Bush to head DOD, was due to his experience with leading large-scale organizations. Prior to his appointment as Secretary of Defense, Gates served as president of Texas A&M University, as the director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) under President George H.W. Bush and in other capacities within the higher echelons of the Executive branch. However, none of these previous roles compare to the enormous size, reach and scope of the authority entrusted to him as head of DOD. Not only does DOD’s budget dwarfs that of any other U.S. executive agency, but it’s also larger than the defense budgets of the next top 12 countries combined.

This reality reflects the extensive reach and responsibility that the head of DOD is endowed with in our country. Misjudging the large role that DOD has grown to play in American life is a mistake that many officials in Washington easily succumb to. For instance, though much media attention focuses primarily on bases and installations situated overseas (especially since our involvement in two wars abroad), little attention is given to the bases and installations situated on the domestic front. This inattention unfortunately overlooks an increasingly dynamic relationship between two important domestic institutions. DOD has bases and installations in every state in the nation. These bases not only serve important functions for the strategic defense goals of the U.S. military, but they also serve important functions for the states in which they reside.

Domestic military bases create both civilian and military jobs for the state and local population in which they are located. When a new military base is created within a state, requiring roughly 800 individuals to perform its operational goals, this means that the state has just added 800 new jobs. Also, because jobs in the public sector are seen as steadier than those in the private sector, it does little harm in assuming that many of the individuals within this new 800 member cohort will eventually work at the new installation for about 20 years (some even longer). This workforce becomes a healthy part of the social fabric at both the local and state levels. If we take into consideration that there are at least 4,364 bases and installations across the 50 states, it isn’t hard to imagine just how deeply ingrained into our society and culture they have become.

Congressmen understand this dynamic. The closing of a military base in a Congressperson’s own state or district deeply affects the relationships they have forged and cultivated with their constituents. Service members whom stand to lose their jobs will lobby their representatives in Congress and fight vigorously to save their livelihoods. The local businesses that spring up around military bases will also be affected and will undoubtedly pursue similar tactics in order to protect their interests. Though Gates castigates members of Congress because of their appeals to him to look favorably upon their states when weighing different options regarding military projects and activities, he fails to realize, or to fully appreciate, the direct connection that members of Congress have with the neighborhoods and communities within their respective states and districts. We hear much about lobbyists seeking influence within the halls of Congress, but as Duty reveals, a great deal of lobbying activities are also taken on behalf of members of Congress towards officials within the Pentagon.

Another sore area in the relationship between Congress and DOD emanates from the oversight role that the former must exercise over the latter. Gates mentioned how he detested having to sit through Congressional hearings as lawmakers harangue and questioned him over issues he believed irrelevant to the war efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan. A potential strain in the relationship between these two institutions could perhaps stem from the inevitable confrontation when different and unique personalities come together to solve highly sensitive and complex issues. In terms of Gates and the myriad egoists that sit atop Capitol Hill, this doesn’t seem hard to believe.

During much of the two decades that Gates spent working within the Executive branch, a good deal of this period was dedicated to stints with the CIA including a period as its head. Needless to say, Gates spent a considerable amount of time working behind the scenes. Emerging from the career of a spook, to becoming the most visible figure within DOD, is one of the reasons that Gates conflicted with members of Congress during his tenure as cabinet secretary. Unlike the closed and hierarchal system characteristic of the Pentagon, Congress conducts most of its business in the realm of public opinion. Working to garner the approbation of the President is much different than seeking the support of one’s constituents. In weighing what he thought was best for the country, Gates also had to consider what he felt was feasible within the President’s ideological framework. Similarly, when making their decisions, members of Congress also concentrate upon the views and principles of those whom they represent.

Gates’s account of his experiences as Defense Secretary are enlightening into the evolving nature of federal politics because he rarely mentions any tensions with his counterparts at the State Department. The usual epic struggle for influence over substantial portions of the nation’s domestic and foreign agendas between the DOD and the Department of State was hardly even touched upon in his memoir. In fact, the references mentioned in regards to personalities at the State Department, spoke to the warm and collegial nature of the relationship Gates had with them. Going forward, future DOD success will depend less upon its turf battles with the State Department, and more upon how they manage the important relationships with the men and women of Congress.


Antwain T. Leach, MPA, is Editor-in-Chief of The American Listener. Previously, he served as president of the Center for Strategic Affairs and Public Diplomacy and was employed as a congressional aide in the office of former Congressman Bart Gordon, where he worked on public administration issues.  He c an be reached at [email protected]

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