To strike Syria or not — for Rep. Howard "Buck" McKeon (R-Santa Clarita), that wasn't exactly the question. In the Wall Street Journal, he said he couldn't even consider U.S. military intervention unless the military budget was liberated from the sequester. McKeon has represented his rock-ribbed GOP district, in north L.A. County and Ventura County, since 1993. His campaigns have benefited from the district's aerospace and defense industries. He chairs the Armed Services Committee. And the nascent diplomatic deal to "sequester" Bashar Assad's chemical weapons? It doesn't change his point: More bucks for U.S. bang.
You believe the U.S. has a "special role" in the world, to "enforce the peace it seeks." How does that relate to the sequester?
The sequester is doing a lot of damage to national security — the readiness of our troops, our men and women in uniform not getting the training they have in the past. Eventually that translates into lives lost. It happened when we entered World War II. Our people weren't sufficiently prepared, and moving across North Africa, they were like cannon fodder. Korea — we were almost pushed into the ocean before we were able to gear back up, because after every war, we tend to cut back our military.
Shouldn't we cut back military spending after wars?
Yes, but not to the point where we weaken ourselves to invite further aggression. People said we should listen to Eisenhower and beware the military/industrial complex. Eisenhower also said we should always be so strong that nobody dares take us on for fear of annihilation. Ronald Reagan talked about peace through strength. When you cut back to the point where you're not able to protect yourself and your allies, they have to start creating other alliances.
An ambassador from the Mideast just walked out of here [his office]. He was very concerned. He said when you draw a red line and don't follow through, then your friends suffer, and I have to agree.
You voted for the sequester. Did you think it wouldn't get to this point?
That was the promise we were given. When you vote, it's not generally on just one issue. There were multiple parts of that [2011 budget control] bill: One was to raise the debt ceiling, which was an unpopular vote, but I felt if we did not, we could force the government to shut down, which would mean we'd have troops in Afghanistan who wouldn't be paid. I thought that was untenable. That bill set up the super-committee that was supposed to find additional savings in mandatory spending. They didn't do it, and so sequestration came in.
We held hearings, we had [former Defense] Secretary [Leon] Panetta say sequester is like shooting ourselves in the head. The Joint Chiefs of Staff, leaders from industry — everybody said how bad the sequester would be just on the impact on the military. A bad thing all around.
Would you vote with the president for a Syria strike if the sequestration ended?
That's the $64 question.
[Laughs.] I told the president that was my red line. I told him that we couldn't keep adding more missions on the military while we were cutting their budgets. We're talking about this venture to Syria — it's like these things are free. They're not free. To keep that carrier task force over there is costing $25 million a week.
Is that the right quid pro quo?
I don't like to call it a quid pro quo. I've been working on the sequestration ever since the vote, because I felt it was wrong on balance but I also didn't want to shut down the government. I didn't say, "If you will fix sequestration, I will vote to go to Syria." What I said was, no more of these missions, no more requests, no more commands to the military to go pull people's bacon out of the fire, until you fix sequestration, until you give [the military] some certainty. The Joint Chiefs of Staff don't know how much money they'll have to spend starting Oct. 1. How is that a way to run a military or a railroad or anything else?
The size of a military budget doesn't necessarily relate to success or failure. Look at Vietnam and Iraq.
Iraq — we won the war, we lost the peace. The diplomats, the administration, the president, the State Department did not negotiate a force to remain behind to secure the gains the military won, and now Iraq is kind of falling apart. I hope we don't do the same thing in Afghanistan. It's becoming critical we get a bilateral security agreement, which means we will leave a force behind to act as trainers, advisors to help the Afghan military secure their gains. This hasn't been accomplished yet.
Would you prefer U.N. action on Syria rather than the U.S. stepping up to take the pitch?
We wouldn't be in this position if the president hadn't drawn the red line. When you set a red line, you ought to think through what you're willing to do. If he had, he would already have known what he was going to do, and when they crossed the red line, he would have taken action. That would have been a year ago, when they first used gas. Now we're in a pickle.
I get a little chuckle out of reading [Russian President Vladimir] Putin's comments. He has a very interesting memory. He condemns us a little bit for Afghanistan. As I remember, they lost and killed a lot of people in Afghanistan. They're still occupying Georgia. And he's telling us how to handle our foreign affairs?
It'd be wonderful if the Russians would use their influence in Syria and get them to give up every bit of their chemical weapons. I don't know how you would do that in the middle of a war. If we lived in a wonderful world [where] that could all be accomplished in a safe, secure, proven, verifiable way, I would take my hat off to Putin.
What about other legislation; what are the prospects for an immigration bill?
It's not really on the front burner right now. I did a town hall [recently], and we had not a question on immigration, not a question on gun control. You recall earlier this session, those were really big issues. We had a couple of comments on Obamacare — everything else was Syria.
You used to talk a lot about bipartisanship. It seems to have gone out the window.
This is my 21st year, and this is the worst I've seen. I'm on the Education Committee, one of the more partisan committees; [I chair] the Armed Services Committee, one of the least partisan. You can talk to Democrats and Republicans and I think to a person they will say I am honest and straightforward in how I run the committee.
We have problems within our own caucus, there's no question. [House Speaker] John Boehner has a huge job to get the continuing resolution [to fund the government] done. Over half the members here now don't know what a regular order is. They don't know you're supposed to pass a budget and then 12 appropriation bills, and the Senate is supposed to [do the same], and have conferences and work those out, and get the president to sign, all before Oct. 1.
Is that just on Capitol Hill or in the public at large?
I think it's a combination. It's been a real decline in people reading legitimate newspapers that have reporters who check their facts, and editors who check things, to blogs and to social media and to people who can put out anything. As a consequence, you get people driven more to become more radical.
A Democrat — a friend who lost his primary last year — said a Democrat can't work with a Republican anymore; they lose their [primaries]. It's the same thing with Republicans. It's accelerated the last few years. People who are radical left just watch MSNBC. Then you get Republicans who listen to Mark Levin or Laura Ingraham or Sean Hannity, and they get radicalized and just look at the world in one way. They beat up Boehner because he wants to keep the government open. Where's the common sense?
It's often said everyone's entitled to his own opinion but not his own facts.
They don't worry about the facts. A friend I served with — he's since retired, Bill Clay of Missouri — told me when he first went to Congress, he was really impressed. This one guy seemed to know everything, he had numbers and facts, so one time [Clay] asked, where did you get the information? He said, I don't know, Reader's Digest, somewhere. It doesn't matter, you can make it up. After you say it a few times, people just accept it. And Bill thought, wow. And I thought, wow.
You sound frustrated; are you going to have another go at reelection?
Hah — you just slipped that in there, didn't you?
The question does come to mind.
I don't have to make that decision yet. I'm worried about getting our national defense authorization bill passed. We are fighting a war in Afghanistan. I'm fighting a war to get sequestration out of our lives.
This interview was edited and excerpted from a taped transcript.