BTS: Turner Luncheon

Monday, June 11, 2012
[NOTE:  these 'BTS' features were created to document my personal experience in covering events that I report on here in this blog.  While I have been letting a little partisanship slip out in some recent postings, I will try to keep this and other 'BTS' items apolitical in nature and stick to the 'nuts and bolts' of getting and producing the stories.]

Representative Mike Turner participating in a debate on amendments to the National Defense Authorization Act on the floor of the US House of Representatives on May 17, 2012.

I was first made aware of Congressman Turner’s appearance through an announcement that was posted on the main Sharepoint site in my office's computer network.  The National Military Intelligence Association, with a chapter in the Dayton area, holds monthly membership meetings and tries to secure guest speakers from the local military and corporate community to speak to the gatherings.  On occasion, speakers from outside the area, to include Louis Andre, Senior Vice President of Intelligence Business Strategy for CACI International, Inc, and US Representative Steve Austria of Ohio's 7th Congressional District, have accepted invitations to address the membership.  To maximize participation at those events (and to help grow overall membership in the group), announcements are disseminated through a variety of online methods in and around the Wright-Patterson Air Force base community.  I will admit that I have attended a few luncheons over the past two years and the attendance averaged between 30 to 40 people and I assumed that this figure would be higher with someone of Turner's stature as this month's guest speaker.

Ever since my realization of the ‘ground rules’ surrounding the covering of on-base events, I’ve tried to keep my presence at them in line with what other media members could expect if they were to request access to the installation or, at worst, how a member of the general public would experience if allowed to enter the base.  This situation, however, posed a unique conundrum that I wasn’t sure I wanted I even wanted to bring up with the Public Affairs folks.  While the luncheon would be held at a facility that is within the physical boundaries of Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, NMIA is not directly affiliated with the US Air Force (USAF) or the Department of Defense (DoD) and, by my logic, would not have their activities as tightly controlled as if they were under USAF or DoD control, and I decided to run with that rationalization.  To ensure that neither the hosting officials nor the congressman’s office would have any objections to me covering the event.  I emailed the chapter president, Dr. Deanne Otto, and Representative Turner’s communications director to inquire about restrictions and I was assured by them that I would be allowed to conduct my journalistic activities, to include audio recording and photographs.  This was a huge weight taken off of my shoulders and I could now concentrate on the event itself.

Due to delays that I could have easily avoided, I arrived at the venue on the 22nd with very little time to spare.  After paying for the meal, I started to look for a vacant chair that would provide me proximity to the speakers and allow me to be as unobtrusive to the rest of the attendees as possible for photography and note taking and found one near the back of the room.  Turner was late himself but once he arrived, Dr. Otto began the program very quickly and I missed the first minute or so of his remarks while I was turning my DVR on and placing it in an unoccupied space on the table in front of me.  I did record the remainder of his speech and was again blindsided by a question-and-answer session that immediately followed (missed the beginning of a member’s comments on the pending closure of the base’s Aero Club).  He took a total of four questions/comments from the audience members before his host ended the exchange and presented him with a small memento in appreciation for his appearance.  Due to a tight schedule, Turner left the meeting shortly after the food was served and the 'newsworthy' portion of the event was over.

Not anticipating such a quick in-and-out by the congressman, I initially requested a short 5-minute interview at the conclusion of his appearance but was politely rebuffed by his communications director due to a tightly packed schedule.  As a 'plan B', I next asked if I could submit my questions to him for official responses by Turner and he said that he would review them and provide information back to me as soon as possible.  Here was the first question:

From 2003 through this year, Wright-Patterson Air Force Base has had three ‘guardians’ in the US House of Representatives (Congressmen Boehner, Hobson/Austria, and Turner).  This team was created by Congressional district mapping after the 2000 Census and it helped that installation weather the 2005 BRAC and several other budget-related issues and mission reassignments that directly involved the state’s largest single site employer and new anchor of the Dayton region’s economy.  Due to population shifts documented in the 2010 edition of that national count, Ohio lost two House seats and had to redraw its districts, effectively reducing that 3-person team down to just one (Turner) starting next year. 

Congressman Turner does feature his advocacy role for WPAFB on his House website but the top two entries include his current House colleague Steve Austria who will no longer be in Congress come January 2013.   With defense-friendly states like Texas, Florida, South Carolina and Georgia gaining House seats, to what level of confidence does Congressman Turner (and the entire Ohio congressional delegation) believe he can adequately protect the base in the Pentagon’s ‘zero-sum game’ funding structure with just one-third of the direct representation and 90 percent of the state’s 2003-2012 overall strength?

I did get to ask this directly during the Q-and-A session and here was Turner's response:

Well, as you know, this is something that is very disturbing for our whole community and our whole region.  And when the news came out that Ohio was going to be losing two seats in Congress, the effects of that, I think, people initially did not quite understand.  That when you lose two members of Congress, when you lose two seats on committees, you lose two advocates, you lose two people who do military appointments both as people who offer legislation who  also advocate with federal agencies  the staff for each of those offices.  And, as you know, the population centers of Ohio are northeast and southwest and as the map was first drawn, we were in a situation where our region would be losing a member of Congress and I think that's a travesty.  Wright-Patterson Air Force Base is the largest single site employer in the state.  You would think that you'd start the map here and go elsewhere; nevertheless, that how the map drawers undertook their assignment.  

You said ‘three bringing it down to one.’  I would tell you that, although we are losing one, we will absolutely continue to have John Boehner’s and the speaker's commitment to Wright-Patterson Air Force Base.   We all look at these lines as imaginary lines.   You don't have to touch something for it to be important.    You would not believe how many times I’ve been on meetings on the Brent Spence Bridge down in Cincinnati because, again, we all work together as a team.   By the way, do you know why that bridge is named that?  It was a congressional earmark--that's the name of the congressman who funded the bridge…the bridge to somewhere (audience laughter). 

While I thought that both of my submissions were objective, the second one was a tad more subjective in a political sense and I chose not to introduce it as a follow-up in that session.  Here it is for your review:

Last summer, the Budget Control Act (BCA) of 2011 was passed that created a congressional “super committee” which was tasked to find an additional $1.5 trillion in deficit reduction steps to augment the $917 billion already identified as part of a debt ceiling raising agreement.  Although Congressman Turner voted no, the BCA passed with bipartisan support in both the House and the Senate and was signed into law by the president.  One of the conditions of that legislation was that if that joint body could not come up with a recommendation, $1.2 trillion in cuts would be mandated through ‘sequestration’ and be split equally from security and non-security programs.  In November, the committee reported that it could not reach agreement and that announcement started the clock in Washington towards identifying these cuts that would need to be enacted in January 2013.  Despite these looming reductions, Turner and other GOP lawmakers have ignored this self-imposed reduction and have just passed their own version of the FY2013 defense budget that actually increases the White House’s original request by $4 billion (and exceeds the BCA cap by $8 billion).  One of the items in this proposal includes an East Coast missile defense program that is championed by the congressman which, with a $5 billion price tag,  is probably the largest contributor to these overages.

Turner, along with 235 other Republican House members and 40 GOP senators, is on record for signing the Americans for Tax Reform’s “Taxpayer Protection Pledge”, a non-binding (but very influential) document that directly impacts upon our country’s ability to collect revenues to pay for things like the defense increases advocated by him and the majority of its signatories.  How does the congressman defend honoring an oath to an unelected lobbying group while blatantly ignoring the legally required consequences from his own branch of government’s inability to reach a bipartisan agreement?

I did get a reply back from his staff but it was not what I expected:

I would point out that Congressman Turner did not vote for the Budget Control Act, nor did he support the transfer of authority for Congress’ decision making to a “Supercommittee.” You can read more on his opinion to that effect and his thoughts on our nation’s spending problems here: 

If you go back and look at my question again, you will see that I already gave the congressman credit for not voting for last year's BCA and the ramifications that it introduced.  An objective observer, however, would have a difficult time condoning him choosing to ignore a legally binding bipartisan agreement and advocating increased levels of defense spending without it appearing antithetical--and borderline hypocritical--to the ATR's pledge or the mission of their newly created group, the Cost of Government Center, that was set up earlier this year to complement the parent organization's tax reform agenda by promoting government spending restraint.

While he chided the Obama administration in his remarks for ignoring the looming sequestration, he and other members of the House Armed Services Committee also disregarded the congressionally mandated cuts and topped the White House's requested amount for defense spending by over $4 billion and I was hoping to hear what his rationale was for taking such actions. In Turner's defense, he did state to the audience that he and other HASC Republicans found offsets for the anticipated $50 billion loss of funding for 2013 and would next do the same for 2014; however, areas that are targeted for these cuts are likely to limit Democratic support and will probably draw a veto threat from the president--conditions that are not very conducive to bipartisanship.

This was not the only time Turner introduced politically charged language into his presentation.  He described the White House's 2013 budget as "fiction" and highlighted the fact that it received no support when brought up for votes in both the House and the Senate.  "I have never been on the House floor where there had ever been a vote where the entire board was red," Turner told the gathering, although he omitted that this was a Republican version of the president's budget and that its proposed remedies for tackling the nation's current fiscal crisis through tax increases and additional spending on energy and welfare are considered anathema for Congress to vote for in an election year--especially in one where the nation chooses the next occupant of the White House.

Personally, I would’ve thought that he might refrain from this kind of subjective (and partisan) framing of those issues in front of a supposed apolitical gathering.  NMIA ascribes to no particular political party, ideology, or agenda but one can correctly assume that most of its members would probably side with Turner’s views concerning the president and other non-Republican leaders in Washington, DC.  Such prevailing attitudes, unfortunately, are, from my personal perspective, in the majority within the present-day national security and intelligence professions.

In recent months, Turner has been a vocal opponent to the Obama administration on the subjects of missile defense.  As I brought up in one of my questions above, he is a very public proponent of an East Coast missile interceptor site, like the two others currently employed in Alaska and California to mitigate the threat North Korean missiles could one day pose to the continental United States.  Turner and others lawmakers feel that a similar location is necessary on the country's eastern boundary to provide a "hedge strategy" against potential Iranian weapons of mass destruction to the US mainland but most Democrats and many in the Pentagon do not share their views.

Turner's increasing animosity towards President Obama might be related to his early endorsement of Mitt Romney, the now-presumptive Republican presidential nominee.  His support in the final days of campaigning prior to the Ohio primary helped the former Massachusetts governor secure a hard-fought win in the state's contest over former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum.  He also made an appearance on a cable news channel as a campaign surrogate to counter the perceived politicization of the killing of Osama bin Laden by the White House on the one-year anniversary of his death.  

All in all, I was impressed with Representative Turner's command of the subject material and his focus on advocating for the base and the greater Dayton area on the national stage.  He spoke for nearly 18 minutes and uttered over 3,400 words (for a pace of about three words per second), requiring several hours to transcribe to my high standards of accuracy.  I haven't paid much attention to him in the past, but since he will, barring some kind of Democratic 'election miracle', be representing me in the Congress come January 2013, I'll need to start keeping tabs on him and his activities in Washington, DC, both as a concerned citizen as well as a budding journalist.

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