Coffman: ‘Sequester gives me leverage’ to push defense cuts

Rep. Mike Coffman, R-Aurora, talks with FOX31 Denver political reporter Eli Stokols in his Capitol Hill office last year.

Rep. Mike Coffman, R-Aurora, talks with FOX31 Denver political reporter Eli Stokols in his Capitol Hill office last year.

DENVER — As Congress goes back to work Monday, the nation’s governors are in Washington, DC, pressing congressional leaders to get off the sidelines and negotiate a deal to avert the looming sequester — a $1.2 trillion dollar package of cuts.

They’re not alone.

On Sunday night, the White House strategically released state-by-state breakdowns of the anticipated financial impact, hoping to pressure Republicans back to the bargaining table; Colorado, for one, stands to lose $85 billion in federal funding that would hit Fort Carson, the state’s national parks and every classroom across the state.

On Monday, Colorado Congressman Mike Coffman is introducing legislation to allow the Department of Defense to implement the $500 billion in cuts more strategically.

Coffman, R-Aurora, is an Iraq war veteran and a member of the House Armed Services Committee who has long been calling for cuts at the Pentagon.

He also happens to suddenly be one of the most vulnerable members of Congress heading into the 2014 campaign cycle; Democrat Andrew Romanoff has already announced he’ll challenge Coffman for his re-drawn 6th Congressional District seat.

Coffman sat down with FOX31 Denver for an in-depth discussion about his proposal to avert the sequester and what’s ahead for Colorado should Congress fail to stop the avalanche of cuts set to hit on March 1.

FOX31: This is another one of those stalemates we’ve seen a lot with this Congress, pushing our county to the brink because lawmakers seem so unwilling to compromise. And there’s a sense that there won’t be a deal this time. What’s your sense? Is this sequester going to happen?

Coffman: “I think the greatest threat to the United States is our debt. And I don’t think Congress can kick the can down the road any more. So I think that if there’s not an alternative, I think the sequester has to happen. My goal is to move a bipartisan proposal forward.”

FOX31: “Bipartisan? Easier said than done, right?”

Coffman: “That’s right. It seems like, on the Republican side, it’s ‘we can’t cut a dime out of defense’. On the Democrat’s side, it’s ‘if you want to avoid cuts, we’ve got to have revenue increases’. I think there’s a path down the middle, a bipartisan path, saying we can do these cuts to defense, we just have to do them in a targeted way and not across the board.”

FOX31: Do you view this as an opportunity for you to make an argument you’ve been making for a long time as a combat veteran and a Republican who is pushing defense cuts?

Coffman: “This is an important day for me, because I’ve been advocating for defense cuts for a long time. I’ve been a fiscal hawk, quite frankly, breaking often with my party. There is wasteful Pentagon spending out there and we need to reform the way we do things in the Dept. of Defense. And we can do so in a way that would be fair to the taxpayers; it would not in any way compromise our national security. What the sequester does is it gives me the leverage to try to get these reforms done that I think are long overdue.”

FOX31: Tell me about your plan. What are the main proposals? Where do you cut and why can it be absorbed?

Coffman: “We can save $50 billion over 10 years just by taking some of the functions that are done by military personnel that are really commercial functions that ought to be done by local contractors; to reduce our forces in Europe. The Cold War’s been over since 1991 yet we still have 79,000 troops in Europe? That’s a $20 billion reduction over 10 years, just by a modest reduction in those forces.

“And then you could save a lot of money by having our ships, instead of coming back to the home ports of the United States, to do crew rotation; we ought to send the crews out there to the ships in ports in their theater of operations. Very simple thing, can save a lot of money.

“Some things are probably a little more controversial. I think our ground forces in the Army and Marine Corps ought to be brought down to their pre-9/11 levels now that we are out of Iraq and pulling down from Afghanistan. And what I want is to put in the Guard and Reserve, so we retain the capability, but at a much smaller cost.”

FOX31: Generally, in Washington, if it sounds like a sensible compromise, it’ll probably never happen. What’s the likelihood any of your proposals get considered, never mind adopted? How do you break through the dysfunction?

Coffman: “If not for the sequester itself, I would have no leverage whatsoever. I think in order to get these things through, I have multiple bites at the apple. There will be a Continuing Resolution that will fund Defense through the end of the year; I will break this apart into separate amendments and try to get them passed; I’ll put this all in one package and introduce legislation and try to get this to the floor; in the House Armed Services Committee, there’s a Defense Authorization Bill every year where I’ll put these reforms on the table.

“In my view, the Congress is very status quo oriented. So the only thing that provides me with a catalyst is the fact that we’re in a debt crisis. I think everything ought to be on the table, including defense cuts. And I think the majority of my colleagues, in a bipartisan way, believe that as well.”

FOX31: But there’s a deep-rooted aversion to defense cuts in Washington. You see that in the opposition to [Defense Secretary nominee Chuck] Hagel, who’s said the Pentagon budget is bloated; so many people get freaked out when you talk about cutting Defense. Do you sense that? And how to do you break through?

Coffman: “I think too often, members of Congress are more interested in: how does this affect my district, a military base, etc.

“It is a challenge. I think the problem is that often times, and both parties are guilty of this equally, that they see defense as a jobs program. And I don’t think that should ever be the case. We need to see it as: what does it to do promote the national security of this country? And if you can’t justify that for a given program, it really needs to go by the wayside.

FOX31: Okay, if this sequester happens, if you’re not successful, where is the impact most devastating? What happens in Colorado?

Coffman: “[Regarding Defense], it’s on the acquisitions side, so we would definitely feel it here in Colorado, the Lockheed Martins, the Raytheons, we’ve got a number of major defense contractors here. They would feel it. If we don’t agree on targeted cuts, which I believe are essential, at least let’s give the Pentagon the discretion. For instance, personnel is exempt, which means this will fall heavy on acquisition. I worry about us becoming a hollow force and losing capability. I think as a last resort I would certainly support giving the Pentagon full discretion over implementing the cuts in an unrestricted way.

“I think they’re defensive. We have more admirals than ships in the U.S. Navy. I think we’re very top heavy in the Dept. of Defense, in its bureaucracy and its leadership. And I worry if we give full discretion, they will preserve that. But I think that is better than doing the across the board cuts.”

FOX31: One last thing. You’re in the House, so you won’t vote on the Hagel nomination. But you’re clearly very interested in what goes on at the Pentagon. Hagel is expected to be confirmed on Tuesday. What do you think about him taking over there?

Coffman: “If I were in the Senate, I wouldn’t vote for him, because I think that there are much better choices that are Obama appointees in the Dept. of Defense who are there now, people one tier below the Secretary who are well respected, assistant or deputy secretaries who could be elevated, Ashton Carter being one, Michelle Fortnoy being another. There’s real talent there with real technical expertise, people who were brought in by Obama who’d make a great Secretary of Defense.

“I think it’s symbolic, the president wanting to have a Republican Secretary of Defense. In Washington, the symbolism often takes precedence over the practical.”