House Republicans Accuse the Pentagon of Shutdown ‘Politics’
Pentagon Comptroller Bob Hale was berated by House Armed Services Committee members who accused the administration of using furloughs ‘for political purposes.’ By Stephanie Gaskell
In a contentious hearing with the Pentagon’s usually affable budget chief, members of Congress accused the Obama administration and Comptroller Bob Hale of purposefully withholding death benefit payments to military families so the administration could score political points in the government shutdown fight over federal spending and Obamacare.
The attack over the Defense Department’s interpretation of the Pay Our Military Act first originated last week among conservatives. But it became a bipartisan congressional attack against the administration on Thursday, as Republican and Democratic members of the House Armed Services Readiness Subcommittee Committee grilled Hale and accused him and other top DoD leaders of furloughing civilian workers “for political purposes.”
Hale testified about how the Defense Department interpreted the law, which was passed just hours before the shutdown began on Oct. 1. The bill was short and vague, but many GOP congress members said it gave DoD lots of latitude to keep the military on the job -- and paid in full -- during the shutdown. Hagel furloughed more than 350,000 civilian workers, but soon determined more than 90 percent of them could return to work because of the new law. And the Pentagon, under advisement from the Justice Department, also said the law doesn’t allow for several benefits to be paid, including the $100,000 death gratuity payment given to families of service members who are killed while on active duty, including those killed in Afghanistan.
Several subcommittee members said it’s all just a political ploy.
“I believe the guidance issued by Comptroller Hale was based on a deliberate decision by the Department of Defense to misinterpret the Pay Our Military Act for political purposes,” argued Rep. Mike Coffman, R-Colo., who introduced the bill in the days before the shutdown deadline. “My bill cast a wide net, as wide a net as possible to ensure that the department’s civilian personnel, all of whom are necessary to support military operations, can report to work.”
"I resent your remarks," Hale said. "I acted on the advice of attorneys and our best reading of a loosely worded law."
Rep. Doug Lamborn, R-Colo., asked Hale directly: “Was this decision political as opposed to legal?” Hale said it wasn’t. But it was Rep. Bill Enyart, a Democrat from Illinois, who made the biggest splash, telling Hale that the line of questioning from Republicans resembled “that old law school joke, the question you ask on cross examination, ‘Well, Mr. Hale, when did you stop beating your wife?’”
And then Enyart joined in, asking Hale, “Is there a conspiracy to make it as painful as possible on the American public?”
“It’s obvious to me that there is a conspiracy between the secretary of defense and the attorney general to make it as painful as possible on the civilian employees in the Department of Defense. And isn’t it true, Mr. Hale, that you were involved in that conspiracy?”
Hale wryly responded: “Is this the stop-beating-your-wife question?”
He said that DoD “read the law to say there had to be a secretarial determination and we went through a process. And we would have preferred not to, but we felt that was what the law required and we did it.” Hale said the department was “acting on advice of the Department of Justice.”
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