From a Florida Congressman
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From a Florida Congressman

Dear Friends,

Since I’ve been in Congress, I’ve been frustrated at times. On occasion, I’ve been pretty well furious. This week, if I’m honest, it was a feeling of being deeply, deeply disappointed with this institution and the way it seems to work these days. To make a very long story very short, the United States Congress has, for the last fifty-three years straight, passed a National Defense Authorization Act to fund each and every line item for our military. No matter how dysfunctional the Congress has gotten at times during those fifty-three years, we’ve always managed to recognize the solemn responsibility we have to fund the troops. For the last two years, the Senate Armed Services Committee and the House Armed Services Committee have done the months-long work of digging through those line-items one by one and reaching a consensus on what our national priorities ought to be for the Defense Department. The FY ’15 House bill, for instance, passed out of our Armed Services Committee unanimously. That’s not uncommon. Such is the sense of our responsibility on this issue and our collective willingness to set politics aside and do what’s right. You can probably imagine my sense of pride back in May when the committee finished its work. None of us agreed with everything, but the final work product was something we could all agree did right by our military and by our nation. The House passed the bill overwhelmingly. And then we waited. And waited. And waited. We watched the Senate committee pass its version and then nothing else came of it. For the second time in two years, the full Senate never brought it up for consideration. It just sat there on the shelf. As the months ticked by, the rumblings about the fifty-three year streak started to get louder.  The calendar matters here because in order for the House and Senate to go to “conference” on their two versions and pass a single unified version that the President can sign, both chambers need to pass their versions first. That compromise process takes time. And once it’s complete, both chambers then have to bring up the compromise version and pass that identical language again. So as October became November and November became December, many of us really started to worry. Last year, when this same thing happened, we were forced to skip the normal process. The two bills weren’t “conferenced” by delegates from each chamber. There was no public deliberation and no opportunity for input. The two bills were fused behind closed door and key decisions were made on the thousands of line items of funding – not by elected representatives of the people, but by unelected members of the staff. No one knew who was increasing this or cutting that. No one knew why or how those decisions were reached. And once reached, those decisions were un-amendable. It was a simple case of take-it-or-leave-it. In the end, despite some serious reservations about certain decisions, both chambers passed the bill and the fifty-year streak continued. The troops were funded and the whole process could begin again. This year, as that same unaccountable process took place again, I could feel a certain tightening in my gut. Despite being a member of the Armed Services Committee and despite the general insight that comes from spending months crafting the finer points of such an enormous bill, it is still impossibly difficult to go through the whole thing in just a few days and find out what on earth these closed negotiations have yielded. One of my close colleagues who was nominally one of the “conferees” had no idea. He hadn’t heard a word. He’d been kept totally out of the process. He’d asked about a couple of provisions he’d worked on personally and no answer was returned. The first thing I checked on when the text was released was the troops. Every year, we have to push back against those who want to cut the troops’ pay and health benefits. It’s astounding to me, given the almost guaranteed tendency of politicians to talk about “the debt we can never repay” and all of the “thank you’s for your service”, that there are so many who want to balance DOD’s budget on the backs of the troops and their families. They just prefer to do it anonymously.    When the House passed its bill back in May, troop pay was intact. When the surprise “conferenced” version popped up this week, it wasn’t. Both active duty pay and housing stipends had been reduced. And since I’m a member of the Armed Services Committee, I’m expected to sign off on the final bill and say these cuts are ok. I didn’t.  Maybe more precisely, I couldn’t.  I don’t know how these politicians look these kids in the eye and tell them how much we owe them and how much we thank them and then turn around and throw them under the bus without a moment’s hesitation.  I really and truly don’t.  By leaving it till the very last possible minute, the powers that be tried to jam us.  If we don’t pass this bill, they say, the military’s budget will go un-authorized.  Chaos will reign.  Swallow the troop cuts… it just couldn’t be helped.  Well who is responsible?   Who made the decision to cut active duty pay?  Who is going to own up to it when they visit that local base back home?  All you hear is crickets… I didn’t come to Congress to play this game.  I didn’t come up here with an attitude of “cooperate to graduate”.  I take my responsibility on the Armed Services Committee very seriously.  But the responsibility that comes first is to our warfighters.  It’s to the men and women who volunteer to sacrifice themselves for this country.  They don’t ask for much in return.  They just ask us to keep the faith.  And when we go behind their backs and take money out of their families’ pockets, we send a terrible message to the people serving.  Just imagine the feeling these guys and gals are going to have when they hear what Congress just did to them.  Imagine being laid up at Walter Reed with a missing leg with your friends hunkered down in Kandahar having lost another good friend last week.  Imagine what these kids go through day in and day out.  Imagine what their kids go through.  Imagine all of that and then imagine that Congress just hid behind a curtain and quietly cut their pay. I’m sorry to go on about this subject for so long, and I’m sorry to have had to vote no, but it ought to be unacceptable to each and every American who hears this. No matter how you may feel about the size of our military or the way it’s been used throughout our history, the last thing any American should ever want to see cut is the meager amount of money these soldiers get to take home to feed their kids.  It’s not a glamorous life and they make unimaginable sacrifices while living it.   What Congress did this week is a disgrace and they are flat crazy if they think I’m going to keep it to myself.   Sincerely,
Rich Nugent
Member of Congress

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