Upstate NY Congressman John McHugh nominated Secretary of the Army

June 4th, 2009

President Barack Obama has picked a New York Republican known for his independent views on defense policy to be his Army secretary.

In a statement, Obama said Rep. John McHugh, a 60-year-old representing a congressional district that includes Fort Drum, is “committed to keeping America’s Army the best-trained, the best-equipped, the best-led land force the world has ever seen.”

“As Secretary of the Army, he will ensure that our soldiers are trained and equipped to meet the full spectrum of challenges and threats of our time,” Obama said in the statement. “And John shares my belief that a sustainable national security strategy must include a bipartisan consensus at home, and he brings patriotism and a pragmatism that has won him respect on both sides of the aisle.”

Technically, Obama announced his intention to nominate McHugh but a formal nomination will not happen until several bureaucratic steps are completed, including full background checks and financial reviews.

McHugh became the leading voice for House Republicans on national security issues earlier this year, but is also know for bipartisanship. That may be among the reasons why the White House nominated him as the next Army secretary.

Over the years, McHugh joined with Democrats to push for bigger military pay raises and more generous benefits, even as the Bush administration argued that weapons modernization programs were suffocating under the weight of personnel costs. He supported a big and permanent increase in the size of the Army when he sensed the strain of multiple and extended tours was sapping morale from troops and their families, although top Pentagon officials said being saddled with a large active-duty force was going to make budget problems even worse.

McHugh also led opposition to Defense Department efforts to dramatically increase Tricare fees for military retirees and their families.

There was praise from members of both parties on the nomination.

Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee who has worked on military personnel issues with McHugh, said, “President Obama couldn’t have made a wiser choice.”

“John, a close friend for many years, cares deeply about men and women in uniform. He will be a superb civilian steward of the U.S. Army,” Chambliss said.

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., who served on the House Armed Services Committee with McHugh before she was appointed to the U.S. Senate, said McHugh’s “commitment to public service is inspiring.”

“He has brought outstanding representation to the families in his district for a generation and will now bring that same leadership to benefit all Army families across the country,” she said.

Republicans’ role

Two weeks ago, McHugh talked about the role Republicans need to take with Democrats in charge, and of how Republicans could reclaim the Reagan-era mantle as the party that is strong on defense.

“We have got a whole heck of a lot of things to overcome if we’re going to assume anything more than the most modest role in the crafting of foreign policy as we go forward,” McHugh said May 21 in a speech before the Council on Foreign Relations.

“I don’t happen to believe we garner any kind of public favor by just picking a fight for fight’s sake,” McHugh said. “For example, on matters that involve the welfare of the men and women in uniform of this country, we’re not going to engage in partisanship. We’re not going to engage in grandstanding that really comes with domestic policy debate in recent times.”

He also raised doubts about future defense budgets, saying he worries about a “message hidden between the lines” of the 2010 defense budget that appears to point toward declining military spending in the future. Republicans “fear the military may be forced to do more with less,” he said. “As we’ve done in the past, we’ve been down this road before and we can’t afford the same mistakes.”

In that speech, McHugh had praise for the Obama national security team he now joins.

“I think the Obama administration has really put together a national security team that, at least at first glance, appears a team that has a record of operating pretty well near the center.”

McHugh also is known for having a sense of humor. For example, in his Council on Foreign Relations speech, he described the stark differences between being in the majority and being in the minority on Capitol Hill.

“The view you have outside the House of Representatives is absolutely affected by where you sit,” he said. “I’ve seen it over there on their side — you look out the window and the birds are chirping, the sun is shining, children are frolicking. Our side not so much. A good day is mostly cloudy. To kind of put it bluntly, we’ve been hitched up in the dog team behind the lead dog — the scenery never changes and it’s not very pretty to begin with.”

While not entirely on board with President Barack Obama’s plans to withdraw U.S. combat troops from Iraq, McHugh said he does support the concept.

“I have said repeatedly, it’s one we should pray for, plan for and work toward. But I remain concerned that the security situation in Iraq remains fragile, and we’ve seen some suicide bombings this week that would underscore the need to be vigilant on this matter,” he said.

McHugh expressed his concerns in a meeting with Obama. McHugh said Obama “assured me” that accelerated withdrawal plans would be revisited if the situation in Iraq deteriorates.

Secretary Geren

If confirmed by the Senate, McHugh will replace Pete Geren, who was sworn in as Army secretary in July 2007.

Geren, 57, a former Democratic congressman from Texas, had been undersecretary of the Army for more than a year when he was named acting secretary of the Army in March 2007 after Francis J. Harvey was fired over poor living conditions for soldiers at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, Washington, D.C.

Geren, was well-liked among his colleagues in Congress and enjoyed the same collegial relations with the Army’s top brass.

In September, he took on the issue of sexual assault in the Army, launching a zero-tolerance campaign that aimed to end what he called “repugnant behavior” among troops who had served alongside one another in combat.

Earlier this year, Geren reversed a policy at Arlington National Cemetery that granted full honors funerals only to officers, senior enlisted soldiers and recipients of the Medal of Honor. Starting in January, full honors were made available to every enlisted soldier killed in combat, as well as members of other services whose families requested it.

Geren also created a congressional fellowship program for noncommissioned officers, placing them in positions traditionally held by officers. That program began in January.

Before he became undersecretary, Geren served in 2001 as special assistant to the secretary of Defense for inter-agency initiatives, legislative affairs and special projects, then in 2005 served for five months as acting secretary of the Air Force.

Prior to joining the Defense Department, Geren was an attorney and businessman in Fort Worth, Texas.

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