John Warner, former chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee and longtime Virginia senator, looms as one of the canniest and most rational defense experts on Capitol Hill for the last two decades. His inclusion as co-chair of the independent panel charged with overseeing the Pentagon's Quadrennial Defense Review would have provided the nation with a keen eye to ensure that Defense Secretary Robert Gates and company did not get away with too many fudged or badly reasoned decisions.
Sadly, that is not to be, as my colleague John Bennett at Defense News reported a little while ago. "I advised the Office of Secretary of Defense, by a written legal memorandum, that, as a consequence of the provisions of the recent [defense] authorization conference report, I foresaw potential conflicts of interest which could limit my participation as a member of the review committee," Warner told Defense News.
House-Senate conferees added eight members to the QDR panel that will be picked by congressional defense committee leaders and it looks as if Warner was uncomfortable with the additions. Since Mackenzie Eaglen at the conservative Heritage Institute led the push for a panel to keep its eye on the QDR -- the law establishing the QDR requires such a panel but it has sometimes been ignored in the past -- we asked her how she thought Warner's decision would play out.
"Losing Senator Warner as an independent panel co-chair is indeed a great loss given his unmatched stature, deep expertise, and genuine ability to work with anyone of either party who is thoughtful on defense and national security issues. He is pragmatic and non-ideological giving him a well-suited disposition for the senior job on this panel," Eaglen said in an evening email. She noted that "the bigger the names of the co-chairs then there is a better chance the rest of the group will be equally stellar" and the co-chair will "set a tone for how the group will operate."
Eaglen said that Congress inserted the report language "in part because Senator Warner had already been approached to serve on the panel, and members were pleased by that decision" so his loss looms even larger. Add to that the time it will take to find someone to replace Warner, the possibility that others may now shy away from serving on the panel and the fact that the panel is already behind schedule and you've got what could be a real mess.
The panel's first report is due to Congress in March and the second report in July. So, Eaglen says that "to have any real impact on the fiscal year 2011 defense budget debate and Congressional consideration of the annual defense bills, the panel must be named and begin work immediately." She says that members know this and "the Chairman and Ranking Member of the House Armed Services Committee [are likely to] name their appointees to the formal panel any day now (even if the Secretary has yet to fully name or appoint his selections).