POLITICO Pro Q&A: Rep. Joe Wilson
The new chairman of the House Armed Services Readiness Subcommittee says he’s determined to help increase the size of the military and boost readiness from historic lows under President Donald Trump’s plan to expand the force.
Specifically, South Carolina Republican Joe Wilson says he supports the $640 billion Defense Department budget for fiscal 2018 that's being promoted by the chairmen of the Senate and House Armed Services committees, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-Texas).
"We’ve had enemies from around the world increase threats," said Wilson, a former Army colonel and National Guardsman. "They have taken our reductions in force and built up threats to the American people. As a Reaganite, I am a strong believer in peace through strength."
Another legislative priority for the new chairman is securing passage of the Military Surviving Spouses Equity Act that would eliminate the so-called Widow’s Tax, which requires surviving spouses of service members killed in action to forfeit the survivor benefit pension annuity.
Thornberry recently wrote of his support for the measure, which Wilson has introduced in every Congress since 2011, urging House Budget Chairman Diane Black (R-Tenn.) to support the repeal.
As co-chairman of the Kurdish-American Congressional Caucus, Wilson also is recommitting his support of a measure to authorize directly arming the Iraqi peshmerga in the fight against the Islamic State.
POLITICO sat down with the congressman in his Capitol Hill office to discuss the defense budget, his goals for his subcommittee and the key issues under this jurisdiction.
The below excerpts have been edited for length and clarity.
Can you provide your thoughts on the president’s defense budget proposal?
While I support the funding level of Chairman Thornberry and Chairman McCain of $640 billion, this is a clarification of the budget at $603 billion. And I’m just very grateful for President Trump’s clear affirmation of rebuilding our military.
What is your view of the president’s proposal to raise the defense spending caps rather than eliminate them? Could you support that proposal?
Yes. I know that he is focused on trying to be fiscally responsible and address defense, homeland security and veteran's issues. And it’s a very delicate balance.
I just really believe … the threats to the American people are rising every day. In particular, we see the threats with North Korea with additional missile testing, the boasts of their ability of miniaturization of nuclear warheads. It should never be forgotten that it was last year that they successfully launched a satellite.
That is a clear indication of the capability of an intercontinental ballistic missile, which could strike the West Coast of the United States, but already put at risk Hawaii and American territories — and obviously the American bases. It’s almost inconceivable to me that we’ve had testing ... clear missile testing by a unit which is designated to strike and eliminate American bases in Japan. Good gosh, how clear is the threat?
You introduced a resolution related to North Korea in this session, could you tell me a little bit about that?
I’m really grateful that we have a resolution with 107 co-sponsors, including [House Foreign Affairs] Chairman Ed Royce and ranking member Eliot Engel. So, it’s a bipartisan resolution. It restates the different levels of threats that North Korea is to the United States and our close allies of South Korea and Japan.
What needs to be done ... is to expand the sanctions to encourage, if not pressure, China. This should be in China’s interests. I’ve actually been to Beijing, where I saw the foreign embassies there have double fences. And the reason for the double fences is … people defect from North Korea and then jump a fence into a foreign embassy compound to claim asylum. And so they know how unstable that regime is, and to me, it should be in the interest of China.
Returning to the budget, in addition to the president’s fiscal 2018 proposal he also offered a budget amendment for fiscal 2017. What are your thoughts on that measure?
Well obviously I’m grateful that is proceeding, again with an emphasis on defense.
What do you think of the specifics of the measure? For example, it contained significant funding for procurement in the view of some analysts. Do you think it struck the right balance?
I do. Readiness involves military personnel, training and certainly the most modern equipment, and maintaining the equipment we have. So there’s so many legs to readiness that need to be addressed.
Are there specific areas of readiness that you want to focus on as subcommittee chair?
We need to maintain the equipment that we have so that we can then have proper training. The flight time is just critical for our personnel. I’ve had the experience myself in the National Guard of training at the National Training Center at Fort Irwin, Calif. in the Mojave Desert. I know how important that training is, because it was a precursor for the unit that I was in, the 218th Mechanized Infantry Brigade, to be deployed for a year to Afghanistan. It was that initial training … that gave confidence to our military.
The training also has such an incredible impact on equipment. We learned that equipment that gives the perception of being very serviceable, once you go through a training you find out it needs to be superseded by multiple generations of improvements. With vehicles, we certainly learned that. When I trained, it was a long time ago. It was a pickup truck going through the dessert. Well, we learned that was not the way that you travel.
You have introduced the Military Surviving Spouses Equity Act to Congress several times. Please tell me about the bill and why this Congress should adopt it.
It’s correctly identified as the “Widow’s Tax,” and I have actually adopted this from my predecessor, the late HASC Chairman Floyd Spence. He had previously introduced this legislation. A survivor of a deceased personnel receives a DoD benefit. Sadly, from that is deducted the Veterans [Affairs] benefit, which can be up to a $1,000 a month deduction, for a $12,000 deduction. What I believe was intended was for people to receive survivor’s benefits — full survivor’s benefits.
Col. Trane McCloud, was in our office. … He was a military fellow. Sadly, he was killed in an accident in Iraq. I know so many families personally who have been effected. We have the Gold Star Mothers with us, who come by and explain, give real-world meaning to how this impacts on their lives, for themselves and their children. These are children of deceased military persons, people who have given their lives proving freedom is not free.
As chairman of the Readiness Subcommittee you have jurisdiction over BRAC [base realignments and closures]. What is your position on the possibility of a new round of BRAC?
I appreciate the discussion very much and I know that our state has really gotten prepared to be in a military-friendly state. We have Gen. George Goldsmith leading the efforts in the Fort Jackson community. Bill and Paula Bethea are leading a state commission on promoting state laws that are being adjusted in the event of a BRAC.
I think it’s very legitimate that this be taken into consideration — how military-friendly a community and state is. And I look forward to working really with Chairman Mac Thornberry and his perception of how we should proceed.
I was concerned that last time we had a BRAC, even though it was beneficial to the military facilities of the district that I represent, it did not save funding as was anticipated.
What would be the threshold to gain your support for a new round? What would the Defense Department have to show?
Well, the department would have to prove to [Chairman] Thornberry that they could address the base realignment issues and achieve saving of funds — actually saving funds, because it still is startling to me that with all of the effort in the last BRAC that it actually did not save money. And then the prior round of BRAC, I’m not sure that saved money either. It would seem like it would, but it’s got to be proven.
You recently spoke with the leadership of the Kurdish Regional Government during a February trip to the region. What are your general impressions from that trip? Also, will you be supporting measures in this Congress to assist the Kurds, such as supporting direct arming of the KRG?
Actually, I do — and I know that there’s strong support in the House and Senate to arming the Kurdish Regional Government. I had a very positive visit with the prime minister and Deputy Prime Minister Qubad Talabani in Erbil.
The American people need to know. [The Kurds] have not forgotten that they were protected by the no-fly-zone. They are a very dynamic and economically advanced portion of the Middle East. It’s very impressive to see the economic vitality, the modern civilization that has been developed there. The American people should be proud that it was because they provided a no-fly-zone so that Saddam Hussein couldn’t persecute and oppress the people. And so the Kurdish citizens really are a dynamic part of Iraq.
With the most recent military operations, in Eastern Mosul and also Syria, the Kurdish forces have been very, very helpful backing up and taking the lead in helping to liberate the second-largest city of Iraq - where my oldest son actually received a combat action badge. So, I identify with that.
What additional issues are you looking to address as subcommittee chair?
To me, it’s the trajectory of where we’re going. It was really sad to me, the lack of attention to readiness in our military did two things. One, it reduced the Army to the smallest size since 1939, the Navy to the smallest size since 1916, the Air Force to its smallest size since it was created in 1947.
The consequence of that is that we’ve had enemies from around the world increase threats. And they have taken our reductions in force and built up threats to the American people.
As a “Reaganite,” I am a strong believer in peace through strength. The stronger the United States is, the better for the people of the United States and for our allies.
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