As the defense budget hearings on Capitol Hill come to a close, the service chiefs’ opposition to repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” before the Pentagon study is complete — as well as the effect their views could have on lawmakers — has become clear.
Discussion of the service chiefs’ positions peaked Thursday during a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on the Air Force budget. Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Norton Schwartz told lawmakers he backed the study of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” underway in the Pentagon, but not legislative action at this time to change the law.
Schwartz said repealing “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” shouldn’t undermine the effectiveness of the armed forces and cautioned lawmakers against taking legislative now.
“This is not the time to perturb the force that is stretched by combat operations in Iraq and Afghanistan and important missions elsewhere without due deliberation,” he said.
Schwartz also expressed concern regarding “inadequate current scholarship on this issue” and “insufficient current survey data on our airmen and their families.” He also said he wants to make sure Air Force standards continue to apply to airmen in the event of any “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal.
“[Defense] Secretary [Robert] Gates’ effort to carefully evaluate and study this issue is obviously essential to our getting to the right spot on this,” Schwartz said.
The Air Force chief’s comments mean the chiefs for all four services are urging Congress to refrain from legislative action at this time on “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” Army Chief of Staff Gen. George Casey, Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Gary Roughead and Marine Corps Commandant Gen. James Conway voiced their opposition in previous testimony.
Standing in contrast to their remarks is testimony given last month by Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Michael Mullen, who said he personally believes gays should be allowed to serve openly in the military.
The service chiefs’ views also are contrary to the position of Air Force Secretary Michael Donley, who endorsed both the review and repeal during Thursday’s hearing.
Donley said he supports the review currently underway at the Pentagon. Noting he was involved in the Defense Department when “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was instituted in 1993, Donley said the process put forward by Gates “has put us in a much better situation than we were in 1993.”
Pressed further by Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.) on whether he supports repeal at this time, Donley replied, “I do.”
Despite these views, the service chiefs’ viewpoints could influence lawmakers who currently are on the fence on voting for either full repeal or a legislative moratorium.
After the hearing, Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.) told DC Agenda he believes the service chiefs’ opposition would drive how lawmakers would vote on either legislative item, but couldn’t say how much.
“I think it will have some impact,” he said. “I can’t gauge the amount.”
And opponents of repeal are emphasizing the service chiefs’ position in their attempt to keep “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” in place.
During the hearing, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), a leading opponent of repeal in the Senate, seized on Schwartz’ remarks as evidence that military leaders don’t want Congress to change the law.
“This idea out there that’s being pushed that the service chiefs somehow support — [are] supporting a campaign promise made by the president of the United States is obviously not true,” McCain said.
Asked by McCain whether passing a moratorium “would be foolish,” Schwartz replied, “I think, sir, that any interim change” would not be appropriate.
McCain said he wanted to “congratulate” the service chiefs for coming out in opposition to both repeal and a moratorium at this time.
“Clearly, a moratorium would be a change in the policy — just a backdoor way of doing it,” he said.
Sen. Joseph Lieberman (I-Conn.), the sponsor of repeal legislation in the Senate, attempted to allay Schwartz’s concerns by saying the Air Force standard of conduct would remain even if “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” were overturned.
“There must be an understanding that … standards of conduct of Air Force members, and that of members of other services, cannot be altered in any way if ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ is repealed,” he said. “We would be eliminating one policy, but then everybody in the military has to live by those standards.”
Lieberman asked Schwartz whether he believes that service members should be discharged solely because of their sexual orientation.
“Sir, I have to tell you that the answer to that question is more complex than ‘yes’ and ‘no,’” Schwartz said. “It is dependent on the consequences given a change a policy.”
In a statement, Aubrey Sarvis, executive director of the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, rebuked Schwartz for suggesting repealing the ban on open service could in any way be a detriment to the armed forces.
“Sens. Lieberman and Levin got it right when they pointed out that forces were not disturbed when bans were lifted in 24 countries, and that U.S. troops have been serving alongside gays and lesbians from other countries in Iraq and Afghanistan, without incident,” Sarvis said. “We respectfully remind all the chiefs that many U.S. service members are openly gay while serving, again without reported problems.”
A number of senators on the committee who back repeal urged Schwartz to consider additional information in making a decision on whether to finally support repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”
Sen. Roland Burris (D-Ill.) urged Schwartz to recall the discrimination that blacks and women once faced in the military.
“We’ve had an African-American who’s chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff,” Burris said. “Now, under this program, if we had started studying and waiting, Colin Powell … probably never would’ve made it because of the delays and the understanding.”
Levin urged Schwartz to speak with airmen who’ve been discharged under “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” to help his understanding of the issue.
“While you’re looking and determining whether there’s any impact to changing the policy, also give some thought to unfairness that would be involved in discharging people now solely for sexual orientation while we’re considering whether to end this policy,” Levin said.