Political Animal

Intel Panel Chair: Retool Spec Ops for China War

Congress now has yet another intelligence oversight committee, but this one with a distinction: It’s headed by an Iraq war veteran who’s actually had to depend on timely intelligence in combat.

Ruben Gallego, a fourth term Democrat from Arizona, was a grunt with the 3rd Battalion, 25th Marine Regiment, which took comparatively heavy losses during his 2005-2006 deployment: 46 Marines and two Navy corpsmen (called medics in the Army) in his company died. One was his best friend.

So, intelligence work is personal for Gallego, who also went on special missions to kill or capture “high value targets” on the U.S. counter-terror Most Wanted list. And as chairman of the new House Subcommittee on Intelligence and Special Operations, he aims to prod the Defense Intelligence Agency into more direct, timely support of combat operations over writing situation reports.

He also thinks U.S. Green Berets, Navy SEALs, and other spec ops units need to be withdrawn from some regions and assignments and get ready for “some kind of conflict with China should the balloon go up.”

“We want to make sure that they’re also being able to keep their training or get retrained for the bigger competition may have in the future with China,” Gallego told SpyTalk in an interview.

For starters, he says, the DIA needs to beef up its HUMINT, or human intelligence, spying capabilities. For over a decade during the Vietnam War, the U.S. military services trained hundreds of case officers, or agent handlers, in the arts of  recruiting and running spies against communist units and personalities. But the practice fell out of favor in Afghanistan and Iraq, as military commanders came to rely more on electronic intercepts of enemy communications. The problem was, the enemy knew it.

“HUMINT, in my opinion, is always better than signals intelligence,” Gallego said. “But gathering human intelligence, which is what I was able to do once in a while with my work in Iraq, didn’t mean much if I had to coordinate, analyze, and then actually be able to do actions on it [myself], right? So, my overall goal is to help DIA become more actionable, more than just an observation organization.”

Meanwhile, Gallego says, U.S. special operations troops need a break from foreign deployments and training missions.

“They’re stretched too thin,” he said. “It causes a lot of family problems. These guys are special forces, but they’re not super human.”

“We are basically overusing them to the point where I think a lot of our special forces are really just, absolutely just tired,” he added. “Not only that, but because they’re already being used on CT missions in, for example, CENTCOM (the U.S. Central Command, responsible for the Middle East), their skill set is only really focused on that.” They need to be retooled, he says, as an adjunct to main force units in a bigger, head-on conflict.

The Big Hurt

During the last “great power competition,” World War II and to a lesser extent Korea and Vietnam, special ops teams conducted behind-the-lines spying and sabotage missions, to varied success. Green Berets on horseback led local troops against the Taliban in the early weeks of the war in Afghanistan. It’s hard to envision how special ops troops would be used in an open military conflict with China, most likely to be fought mainly at sea with cyber weapons, missiles, and warplanes.

Nevertheless, he says, the Pentagon should start drawing down special ops troops from joint training operations in places like Africa and the Arctic and retooling them for a future conflict in Asia. They could be replaced in most cases, he says, by regular active duty and National Guard units. NATO members’ special ops troops could pick up the slack for foreign counterterror and training missions.

“We actually have some really good state national guard relationships with a lot of countries that actually train forces,” he says, citing Minnesota National Guard maneuvers with Norwegian forces. “So, it’s not an uncommon thing to do. And again, you don’t necessarily need your most well-trained men to be training basic infantrymen. You can use other forces for that type of work.”

Retooling Pentagon policy is like trying to turn around an aircraft carrier battle group at full flank speed. The House Armed Services Committee merely sent up a flare by dissolving the Intelligence and Emerging Threats and Capabilities subcommittee and replacing it with Gallego’s intelligence and special ops oversight panel and another to focus on Cyber, Innovative Technologies, and Information Systems, chaired by Congressman James Langevin, a Democrat from Rhode Island. It’s yet to be seen how these new committees will mesh—or conflict— with the plethora of other intelligence panels in the House and Senate. Gallego says he has only five staff dedicated to the subcommittee’s work. His eventual budget is yet to be determined. It may turn out the ambition of the former Marine, who grew up dirt poor but managed to graduate from Harvard, far exceeds his resources.

Meanwhile, he’s also got extremists in spec ops and military intelligence units in his sights. A retired senior intelligence official recently told SpyTalk that some spec ops troops “don’t even bother to hide” their sympathies for white supremacist and neo-Nazi groups.

“We’re going to address it system-wide, including the special forces,” says Gallego. “And part of that is that also, the special forces have to diversify. We’re operating in so many different parts of the world, but our special forces are largely white and male when most of the world that we’re operating in is neither white nor male.”

He’s also taken note of ex-U.S. special ops troops like Erik Prince, the former Navy SEAL who founded the notorious Blackwater security firm, hooking up with foreign governments to conduct legally dubious operations.

“Certainly, whatever we can do to make sure that we stop some of our former operators from joining any type of illegal activity, we should be looking into that. But once it crosses over into domestic enforcement, it really is the responsibility of the [Justice Department] to do that. I don’t want military personnel and military money being used to enforce civilian laws.”

During our interview, Gallego, 41, was in a car with his talkative young child and they finally stopped at a shop for a treat of hot chocolate.

“Look, I was in the military,” he said, getting out of the car, “and I saw extremism in the Marine Corps, too. Of course, it’s not a vast representation of the military, but you still can’t have it. And we need to root it out.”

What’s Wrong With the Federal Government Buying American?

St. Louis Screw and Bolt has been in business since 1887. As its name suggests, it manufactures heavy-duty steel bolts, nuts, screws and other fasteners that hold up bridges and buildings across the country.

At its peak, post-World War II, the company had 400 workers on the payroll but shrank to just 10 workers in the 1990s when cheaper Chinese imports flooded the market. Today, its General Manager Bill Germuga says, the company has around 60 employees, half of whom work on the factory floor and half in distribution. Its manufacturing operations survive, Germuga says, because of longstanding federal “Buy America” and “Buy American” policies that require the federal government—and federally funded transportation projects—to use U.S. companies and suppliers.

“If Buy America goes away, eventually I would expect our manufacturing will go away,” Germuga adds.

Preserving manufacturing jobs like those at St. Louis Screw and Bolt is why “Buy American” is a rare point of agreement between Presidents Joe Biden and Donald Trump. Trump made “Buy American, Hire American” a signature issue. Biden, for his part, issued a “Made in America” Executive Order, creating a “Made in America Director” charged with closing loopholes in existing regulations and improving enforcement of current requirements. Incoming U.S. Trade Representative Katherine Tai, whose confirmation process began recently, has promised a “worker-centered” trade policy, another indication that the administration will prioritize domestic industries and jobs. “[W]e are going to use taxpayers’ money to rebuild America,” Biden said at a January event unveiling his Made in America effort. “We’ll buy American products and support American jobs, union jobs.”

There’s no doubt that the Biden administration’s embrace of Buy American is politically smart. Pre- and post-election surveys conducted by the polling firm Lincoln Park Strategies for the Hinrich Foundation found that three out of four ⁠Americans support Buy American policies, including 73 percent of Democrats and 88 percent of Republicans. Respondents also ranked Buy American as the most important trade policy to be pursued over the next four years, ahead of negotiating new trade agreements or increasing U.S. exports. Four in five Americans (79 percent) also believe the policy creates jobs. (Disclosure: I helped draft and commission these surveys.)

Unfortunately, Biden’s Buy American push won’t save the nation’s economy or rescue its manufacturing. In fact, it may do more harm than good, if it has much effect at all.

For one thing, Buy American only deals with what the federal government buys, which—at about $600 billion a year—accounts for only a single-digit percentage of the nation’s $21 trillion economy. Moreover, Biden’s executive order merely adds a layer of bureaucracy to federal purchasing requirements, some of which date back to 1933. Already, 97 percent of federal procurement already goes to U.S. companies, according to the Chamber of Commerce. In fiscal year 2017, according to the Government Accountability Office, just $7.8 billion went to foreign firms.

As limited as it is, Buy American is still dubious policy. It restricts competition for government contracts and entrenches incumbent players, thereby raising costs. For federal transportation projects, current law⁠ requires contracts to go to domestic firms unless the lowest-priced domestic bid is at least 25 percent more expensive than that of a foreign competitor. This effectively means the government pays up to a 25 percent premium to buy American products.

“Taxpayers will pay more for a given amount of road, broadband or whatever the government is buying,” said Gary Hufbauer of the Peterson Institute for International Economics. “And then because the money doesn’t go as far—there are always more projects than money available—some projects just wouldn’t get done.”

Buy American policies also invite retaliation from other countries. Scholars have, in fact, noticed a rise in “Buy National” policies over the last decade. Many countries—most notably China—are increasingly relying on “local content requirements⁠” to favor domestic producers and exclude foreign competition. An arms race in “Buy National” could cost American jobs and hurt American exporters in business services like insurance or banking, where America enjoys a competitive advantage. This means everything from the U.S. accounting firms hired by foreign governments, to turbines and heavy equipment bought for foreign construction projects could be at stake.

Buy American also lulls Americans into believing that this quick-fix policy is all it takes to grow the economy and create new jobs. It denies the interdependence of the global economy and the tradeoffs that come with trade restrictions. It gives policymakers a pass on doing the hard work of developing policies that will promote growth—education, apprenticeships, infrastructure investment and the like—as well as trade policies that can help, such as enforcement of intellectual property rights and a strong stand against currency manipulation and other unfair practices.

Americans support policies like Buy American because its modest upside is tangible. We know, more or less, which jobs would be lost were Buy American to be repealed (the jobs at St. Louis Screw and Bolt would surely be among them). One of the frustrations of free trade advocates is that the benefits of trade are diffuse while the damage is acute. Factories close so that consumers can spend less at Walmart. The cumulative savings are large but not obvious to individual shoppers.

Americans also support Buy American because many of them are increasingly questioning some of the fundamental tenets of free-market capitalism and trade. Consumers happily pay more for “fair trade” coffee or “sustainably produced” goods, and there has been burgeoning interest in socially conscious investment. Companies are increasingly measured and rewarded for their attention to “environmental, social and governance”⁠ factors in their operations as well as their profits. It’s no stretch to understand why Americans would want their tax dollars going to U.S. firms—albeit at higher prices—rather than to foreign companies.

Policies like Buy American also serve legitimate strategic interests, even if indirectly. A case in point is the Charlotte Pipe and Foundry Company⁠ in North Carolina, which runs one of only three cast-iron foundries left in the United States, says its Vice President Brad Muller. These foundries produce everything from electric turbines to Army tanks to sewer pipes. But the U.S. has lost nearly 500 foundries ⁠over the last 15 years due to foreign competition, according to the American Foundry Society.

Founded in 1901, Charlotte Pipe employs 1600 workers across seven plants, about 500 of whom work at the iron foundry. Muller argues that preserving the foundry is a matter of national security. “If we don’t have foundries in America like Charlotte Pipe and our competitors, we can’t defend the nation,” he said. “We don’t have the infrastructure in place to build our own ships and planes … These foundries are important—you don’t just turn them off and turn them back on when you need them. Once they’re gone, they’re gone. It’s not like you can pop one up overnight and meet demand if we, God forbid, go to war with China.” While the company is not heavily dependent on business from Buy American, the policy helps it survive. “It’s hard for us without some protection from federal Buy American to compete with heavily subsidized imports,” said Muller.

Nevertheless, Trump’s trade policies—like his tariffs on aluminum and steel and his trade war with China—prove that ham-handed economic nationalism is counterproductive. A 2019 study by Moody’s Analytics concluded that Trump’s trade war destroyed at least 300,000 American jobs, while the Federal Reserve Bank of New York estimated that U.S. companies lost $1.7 trillion in shareholder value as a result. And while Trump metals tariffs did create several thousand jobs in the steel industry—it cost about $900,000 taxpayer dollars per job saved, according to the Brookings Institution.

The challenge for Biden will be to avoid the same traps. He’ll need to devise an agenda that creates new U.S. jobs, addresses the impact of globalization, and preserves the industries and assets vital to our security—but that also rejects the perniciousness of protectionism. Buy American, for all its appeal, falls short of these measures. But since it’s here to stay, and the president is likely to take a tougher line on trade than either of his most recent Democratic predecessors, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, Biden should temper expectations, rather than promise what can’t be delivered. The native son of Scranton, with its depressed manufacturing base, is also a Delawarian, with Wilmington’s huge port and global banking and corporate presence. Biden knows firsthand the upsides and downsides of trade. He should also give us some of his patented straight talk about the downside of policies like Buy American.

Democrats Ditch 10-Year-Old Earmark Freeze, Putting GOP In a Tough Position

It is official: Earmarks are returning to Congress. The House Appropriations Committee will soon unveil the new process by which individual legislators can direct spending to projects in their home districts.

Both parties swore off earmarking a decade ago after each had members get caught in scandals, some going so far as to barter earmarks for campaign contributions and lavish trips.

This bad history was clearly on Democrats’ mind. The new regime for “community project funding” will look a lot different from the dodgy, old way of doing business. Lawmakers’ requests for funds must be posted online, and they will be vetted by committees. Earmarks may not go to for-profit companies and may not benefit for-profit companies or lawmakers or members of their families. The Government Accountability Office will audit a sample of the projects.

The restoration of legislative-directed spending was no surprise. Democrats have been talking about it for the past few years. Their plans got a boost last October when the bipartisan Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress recommended re-empowering legislators to direct funds but with strong safeguards in place. Democrats plans kicked into high gear shortly after the November election. At that time, Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), the second most powerful Democrat in the chamber, announced that all three of the legislators angling to chair the House Appropriations Committee supported bringing back earmarks.

Earlier this week, the revival of legislative-directed spending became all but a fait accompli. Both House Ways & Means Chairman Richard Neal (D-Mass.) and Transportation Committee Chairman Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.) shared word that legislators would be allowed to request projects in an infrastructure bill they hope to move in the spring.

The Republican response has been mixed. This week, the House Freedom Caucus decried earmarks as “the currency of corruption.” The Republican Study Committee, which includes most GOP House members, also condemned earmarks as wasteful and contrary to the principles of federalism. “[L]ocal projects—over which earmark advocates would prefer funding control—perhaps should not be funded at the federal level at all.” The GOP generally has made denouncing earmarks as “waste, fraud, and abuse” as part of their brand.

But not all Republicans agree with the moratorium. “Earmarks never really went away,” noted Garret Graves (R-La.). “They just moved from Congress to the administration, I think, with less scrutiny and transparency.” Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.), who has represented Oklahoma since 2003, has forthrightly defended earmarking. When “focused on core infrastructure and community service needs, this tool can vitally help members to ensure their constituencies are not overlooked.” Other conservatives have reasoned that if Republicans are not trying to direct where the money gets spent, Biden’s appointees will. With his party divided, Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) has not taken a position.

A similar scene is occurring in the Senate. Some GOP senators are coyly amenable to earmarking. Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) signaled he was fine with earmarks so long as they were “meritorious.” Of course, for him, they never went away. As chairman of the Appropriations Committee, he had a new FBI facility built in his home state, among other things. Minority leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, who has directed lots of federal spending to his home state of Kentucky, has suggested his fellow partisans might forgo earmarks.

Political noise aside, the return of earmarks heralds a restoration of Congress’s constitutional authority and realism in governance.

Earmarks have been around since the dawn of the Republic. The Constitution gives Congress—not the executive—the authority to raise revenues and to expend them. The Founders were quite familiar with earmarks—they used them to erect piers, lighthouses, and publicly useful things. There was no Department of Transportation in the 19th Century to decide where to lay out interstate roads or the transcontinental railroad. From Congress’ authority to declare war and stand up an army and navy flowed its authority to choose how much to spend on shipbuilding yards and forts.

For sure, some legislators have sought earmarks to fund projects that do not pass the laugh test, like the Teapot Museum in Sparta, North Carolina and an unneeded atomic clock. (Neither project actually got funded.)

But it is not as if the executive branch has not had its share of costly boondoggles. And critics of earmarks tend to seize on the silliest examples and fail to mention the unmistakably worthy ones. (The human genome mapping project was funded by an earmark, as was AIDS research.) Most earmarks tend to be for military projects and prosaic infrastructure projects, like repairing and expanding roads.

Congress was right to revisit the 2011 earmark moratorium because it failed to live up to its promises. It did not reduce federal spending. It just shifted the decision-making authority to the executive branch and gave already powerful presidents more opportunities to do their own pork-barreling. It was one more way Congress ceded power to the executive.

Nor did the moratorium stop the practice of legislators directing how appropriated funds get spent. The most powerful members of Congress continued to steer tax and spending benefits to their home states. Other legislators got executive agencies to do their bidding by phoning and writing them letters (lettermarking and phonemarking).

Most troublingly, taking earmarks out of the legislative bargaining process increased gridlock in Congress. Polarization discourages legislators from working across the aisle. Earmarks gave them a reason to buck the party line for the sake of helping their districts. Among experts on Congress, there is little doubt that earmarks create cross-partisan incentives. It’s oil for the machine.

For sure, the return of earmarks has given congressional Republicans a dilemma. Both McCarthy and McConnell want to reclaim a majority in their chambers, and one way to do that is to keep their members unified against nearly everything Democrats try to move through Congress. The last thing they want is their own members breaking ranks to receive earmarks.

Yet, plenty of evidence suggests that conservatives can help their reelection chances by securing benefits for their constituents. The problem is that House and Senate GOP rules forbid Republicans from requesting earmarks. So, recapturing either chamber could be more difficult if Democrats are getting things done for voters back home and Republicans are not.

This leaves McConnell and McCarthy with a lousy choice: continue to refuse to let their members request earmarks and risk imperiling their reelection, or rescind the earmark ban and get blasted by the right for capitulating to the Swamp.

But perhaps they can thread the needle by reminding their voters that Donald Trump favored reviving earmarks while quietly letting their members request local projects. And if the earmarks prove to be meritorious, voters may reward them.

Voter Suppression Is The Only Policy Agenda Left for a White Christian Identity Party

Politico is leading today with a story on the Republican Party’s rapid descent into an organization with no real policies or ideas. It’s a trend that even many conservatives have been noting with alarm for years, one that predated Trump’s ascent to the 2016 nomination but accelerated as Trump’s cult of personality began to dominate the GOP. It is now reaching its zenith in the GOP’s punitive obsession with new voter suppression laws to fix a “voter fraud” problem that does not exist except in conservative conspiracy theories.

The proximate cause of the shift to this “policy wasteland” is supposed to be Trump’s sometimes heterodox, more often carelessly oblivious approach to governance, combined with a combative, oppositional approach to politics. The Republican Party didn’t even bother to craft a platform at its 2020 convention, functionally subjugating the organization’s intellectual cortex to Trump’s impulsive amygdala. The GOP base is still reeling from and often refuses to accept Trump’s defeat, leading to both the January 6th insurrection attempt at the Capitol as well as a rash of new Jim Crow voting laws.

But the Republican Party’s abdication of policy as its raison d’etre is not really about Trump. Trump is rather a symptom of the problem, not the disease. Two trends converged to bring the Republican Party to its current state.

First, the free market, anti-government domestic policy platform combined with the aggressively hawkish foreign policy agenda that had been the GOP’s ideological core since Reagan has been a disastrous failure going back decades, and has no answers for the crises that beset modern America. Laissez-faire, anti-union economic policy has decimated the middle class, widening the gulf between the few at the top and the many at the bottom. The wage stagnation crisis was papered over for a time by rising real estate and other asset prices, but those only served to benefit the generations that bought in on the ground floor.

Decades of free-market policy designed to boost assets while reducing wages has hollowed out the economy while creating an acute crisis for Americans under 40, who are so desperate and disenchanted with the miserable prospects conservative policy has left them that they strongly prefer socialism over capitalism. Modern conservative policy has no answers whatsoever for rising healthcare, education and housing costs. And climate change presents just as great a threat to Republican market orthodoxy as it does to the ecosystem itself: the market simply cannot organically react to climate change in time to avoid disastrous tipping points from emissions. Proactive regulation is a necessary condition for stopping climate change, which is why Republicans cannot create policy solutions around it. They must pretend it does not exist or does not matter.

Meanwhile, of course, Bush-era neoconservative military forays into the Middle East were such catastrophic disasters that Trump’s GOP now repudiates them. Nor are modern challenges like China, North Korea or Russia amenable either to paleoconservative isolationism or Cheney-style swashbuckling. The GOP simply has no answers for any of our current policy challenges, foreign or domestic. It would need an ideological overhaul to put relevant ideas on the table.

But second and more importantly, the Republican Party has increasingly become the party of white Christian Identity. Much as conservatives love to rail against supposed “identity politics” on the left, it is the Republican Party that is (despite Trump’s minor gains among non-whites in 2020) almost uniformly devoted to white and evangelical Christian identity.  It is also mostly male as well.

Being a party dedicated to white supremacy, Bible-thumping prejudice and misogyny doesn’t just make it a morally and socially hazardous toxic dump site for the worst impulses in American culture. It doesn’t just put the party on a collision course with demographic doom as America becomes invariably less white and less evangelical over time. It also makes for a barren policy cupboard.

U.S. policy, from its voting systems to its zoning laws, from its prison systems to its tax laws, is already set up to reify conditions of structural racism and misogyny. Many of the minor attempts to address those structural inequalities, from the Voting Rights Act to affirmative action to Great Society welfare policies, were repealed in the Reagan-Clinton era backlash. Any attempts to further benefit whites at the expense of non-whites, Christians at the expense on non-Christians, and cis men at the expense of other identities, would almost certainly be unconstitutional. They would also repulse the majority of voters.

Moreover, the same forces that free market conservatives unleashed on Americans with particularly harmful impacts on non-whites such as harsh prison sentences, woeful drug laws and slashing protections for blue-collar workers, are now having devastating impacts on white communities as well. The same progressive policies that the left has championed for years now are also the best tickets for helping the struggling white working class. It is becoming harder for the party of patriarchy to champion crude Social Darwinist meritocracy when women far outnumber men going to college. But decades of propaganda against those policies have left the GOP listless and unable to rework its policy agenda, beyond the occasional lurching action on drugs or prison reform.

This is why the only real policy innovations on the Right over the last decade have been on immigration–the one arena where conservatives could theoretically Make America White Again. Of all the employees at the White House, Stephen Miller was probably the closest to having a real policy agenda. But, of course, that agenda was particularly monstrous, cruel and unpopular–a betrayal of the open identity of America and an affront to common decency. Trump’s immigration agenda was such a horror show that it was practically sidelined for the entire 2020 election campaign.

So all conservatives have left is a spent, useless and discredited policy platform incapable of addressing modern problems, and a White Christian Identity base that cannot legitimately, morally or Constitutionally establish policy to perpetuate its power.

All they have left is opposition, voter suppression and judges. Don’t do anything about crises–but also don’t let anyone else do anything about them, either. Don’t say the racism too loud (though that’s changing fast), but also make sure no one else gets to vote or have any power. Don’t pass any laws, but just let some extremist Federalist Society judges stop anyone else from passing any laws, either.

This dynamic is not going to change anytime soon, regardless of how long Trump holds sway over the party.