Roll Call: CongressNow Overview - Levin Is Key Ally for Obama’s Reform Efforts: 05/21/09
By Eugene Mulero
May 4, 2009
Ask most lawmakers and they will tell you that the political elements are aligned this Congress for military acquisition reform.
This year, both chambers rolled out legislation to overhaul how the Pentagon buys major weapons, and that is due in large part to Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), who has emerged as a key ally to President Barack Obama on military matters.
It has been a fast-moving legislative calendar for Levin, chairman of the Armed Services Committee. He has called for partnering with Russia on missile defense, investigating the role of private security contractors in Iraq and re-evaluating the U.S.’s strategic reliance on Pakistan in the Middle East. And through it all, he has gained bipartisan backing, especially from ranking member John McCain (R-Ariz.), as he lays out the committee’s priorities.
Levin teamed up with McCain to introduce the Weapon Systems Acquisition Reform Act (S. 454), which calls for terminating some Pentagon programs with 25 percent or more in cost overruns. It also increases the degree of oversight in the process (though the House version has more oversight provisions).
The committee approved the Levin-McCain bill in April, and it will reach the Senate floor sometime in May.
The legislation is significant because it cemented Levin’s reputation as a staunch ally of the new administration, which has put acquisition reform at the Pentagon and other agencies at the top of its agenda.
The most resounding endorsement on Levin’s bipartisan approach to his job came from Obama during his prime-time White House news conference on March 24, when he said “there is uniform acknowledgement that the procurement system right now
doesn’t work. That’s not just my opinion. That’s John McCain’s opinion. That’s Carl Levin’s opinion.”
Levin, who is the longest-serving Senator in Michigan history, said he appreciates the attention, as long as it helps get things done.
“What we hope to do is very simple — bring down our cost overruns and put much-needed oversight into the process,” he said.
However, Levin also has not shied away from confronting the popular Democratic president, particularly when it comes to war strategy. Although he supports the new approach to Iraq and Afghanistan, Levin criticized the administration for its plans to rely heavily on Pakistan in the fight against the Taliban and other extremist groups along that country’s western border.
“I thought [Levin’s] Pakistan comments were going to hurt him,” one Republican Senator said. “Now look at what has happened. His concerns have proven to be correct, and now everybody realizes how big of a problem Pakistan is.”
Throughout it all, the 74-year-old lawmaker has tried to appear cordial in handling his disagreements with the Obama White House.
“I respect the president and the team he has put together,” Levin told reporters recently. “Pakistan was an issue I needed to raise, and the administration has been receptive to my comments.”
Ultimately, Senate leaders acknowledged Levin’s input and appeared to be in agreement.
“Pakistan did present a problem, and we have to look at it carefully,” Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said. Levin “had raised valuable points on the issue.”
“He was right. Pakistan has always been a major concern,” said Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee.
The administration looks like it got the message. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, who worked alongside Levin during her stint on Armed Services, validated the chairman’s concerns.
“We can’t expect Pakistan to just become a partner overnight. It’s going to take time,” Clinton told a House panel in April.
Other Senators say Levin’s message got across because he is experienced at communicating with colleagues.
“He has the seniority and has earned the respect from Members across the aisle,” Sen. Joe Lieberman (ID-Conn.) said. “He is a strong voice on the committee.”
Since the people of Michigan elected him to the Senate in 1978, Levin has risen to become one of the sharpest Members of Congress on issues of oversight, reform and military matters. Many say his command of key issues is admirable.
“We know we can count on him,” Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.) said. “He is a terrific chairman and commands the respect from witnesses.”
During their recent testimony before the committee, Defense Secretary Robert Gates, U.S. Central Command chief Gen. David Petraeus and Gates’ senior staff also praised Levin.
The chairman has persuaded Senate Republicans to back the pending Levin-McCain bill because he teamed up with Obama’s political rival. Now many observers expect the Senate debate on the bill to remain muted because there’s bipartisan support for the bill.
One Democratic aide on the committee explained that Levin had to work with Obama on major reform legislation when he became president.
“We knew [Obama] meant what he said when he spoke of change,” the Democratic aide said, adding: “However, we didn’t think we could get McCain on board so soon. Levin deserves a lot of credit for that.”
Levin enjoys a degree of respect from his GOP colleagues, largely because he has been willing to listen to their concerns and lay out compromises on policy and budgetary matters.
Armed Services Subcommittee on Strategic Forces ranking member Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) said he is pleased at how knowledgeable Levin has been during his questioning of witnesses this year.
“I think he has done an outstanding job as committee chairman,” Sessions said. “We work very closely; I’m a subcommittee ranking member and serve on other subcommittees as well. I think he’s moved forward. We’ve had hearings. We’ve had nominations. We are having Gates here to testify. I think he’s done a really good job.”
McCain also is optimistic: “The chairman and I know that acquisition needs to see improvements. We agree on key issues, and I know he wants to see the best for our troops just like I do.”