POLITICO Pro Q&A: Rep. Joe Courtney
By Connor O’Brien
February 23, 2016
Rep. Joe Courtney of Connecticut hasn't earned the nickname "Two Sub Joe" easily – or as Mohegan tribal leaders have dubbed him, "Two Iron Fish."
The fifth-term Democrat and ranking member of the House Armed Services Seapower Subcommittee has fought fiercely for the production of two Virginia-class attack subs per year and to protect other weapons programs critical to his eastern Connecticut district, home to the Navy's Groton submarine base and General Dynamics's Electric Boat division.
Courtney sees the Obama administration's new fiscal 2017 defense budget as a mixed bag. In a wide-ranging interview, POLITICO got his take on the Ohio-class submarine replacement program, the Long-Range Strike Bomber, the prospects for another round of base closures and the looming defense budget fight.
Here are some edited excerpts:
Politico: What's your reaction to the president's defense budget, particularly some of the Navy's proposals like cutting a carrier air wing and buying one less Littoral Combat Ship?
Rep. Joe Courtney: Mixed is the term that I would use ... However, there's no question that [Defense] Secretary [Ash] Carter's focus on boosting capabilities is really an important initiative because we've also spent a lot of time on the subcommittee talking about vulnerabilities that our fleet has to some of the weapons systems that are out there right now that make surface ships much less safe ... So, I think it's important to recognize qualitative improvement to the fleet that the budget includes.
The undersea part of the budget I think is very strong ... Ohio Replacement has all the right numbers in it in terms of keeping it on track. We're still waiting for some follow-up narrative documents regarding the Sea-Based Deterrence Fund ... Obviously, what CRS and CBO reported really, in my opinion, shifts the burden here to the critics of the fund about ... how are you going to find that $10 billion of savings that these guys have identified?
There's some good things to work with ... in terms of those new capabilities, and then, obviously, we're going to be looking very hard at the LCS and some of the sort of more granular aspects of the submarine budget.
Politico: Experts say there is a sizable bow wave coming in Pentagon acquisition as programs like the Long-Range Strike Bomber and Ohio Replacement Submarine ramp up. How can the Pentagon pay that tab, and what can be done to ease the strain on the services' budgets?
Rep. Courtney: That's the question of the day. And ... to some degree the budget ... kind of raises the flag on this problem, but kind of hands it off to the future Congresses and the administration without – so far anyway – without any sort of owners manual about how to deal with it ... The bill on this in terms of nuclear force modernization is going to be a monumental challenge for future congresses.
I think Sea-Based Deterrence, when you look at the triad ... there's just no question, if it's being assigned 70 percent of the job, I mean I think it has to get viewed with priority. It's just simply math ... The Long-Range Strike Bomber, which has more of a multiple mission than just strategic deterrence ... It's budget should be situated within the Air Force's normal operating account, just because, again, it achieves other missions than just strategic deterrence. That's all the Ohio subs do is just that one mission.
Politico: So you don't believe there should be a separate account for the bomber?
Rep. Courtney: I'm not ... religiously opposed to it, but I do think that there's a difference between these two platforms – again, where one is carrying such a high burden of the strategic forces and really has no other mission in the Navy as opposed to the Long-Range Strike Bombers ... They are doing missions against ISIS ... surveillance and ... other functions of the Air Force ... So, I think that argument is a little harder to make.
Politico: You and [Seapower Subcommittee Chairman] Randy Forbes scored a victory over appropriators last year on the Sea-Based Deterrence Fund. What is the next move for the Ohio Replacement program?
Rep. Courtney: We're waiting for the Pentagon's sort of text of their budget submission for Ohio Replacement. Again, it has actually the first advanced procurement for actual production ... It's reached a point where they're cutting steel and actually building the first phase of the platform. And my fingers are crossed that we'll see some support coming over from the Navy and the Pentagon, but if there's still a reluctance to embrace it, I think Randy and I ... feel that this is a very viable solution for both the Pentagon and the taxpayer and we're going to continue to pursue it.
Politico: Big ticket items aside, what are your priorities on the Seapower Subcommittee this year as you prepare for the NDAA?
Rep. Courtney: Again, there's been sort of this brewing debate over posture versus presence. And I think this budget kind of leans a little more toward posture ... The posture pieces that came over are very much appreciated, and I think recognized as of great value. You know, obviously, world events get a vote here in terms of just how this gets put together ... It's not all just sort of internal philosophical debate about posture versus presence. Obviously, we want to hear from people out there in the real world.
Politico: Do you think Congress will have the same debate this year over laying up Navy cruisers?
Rep. Courtney: We've seen already some ships going in for modernization ... There's going to be somewhat of a groan on the subcommittee that we're going to have to kind of hash this out again. And, again, we've now sort of ratified this 2-4-6 compromise two years running and to reopen it, I think there's going to be a lot of reluctance to do that.
Politico: Republicans have said somewhere between $15 billion to $23 billion in Overseas Contingency Operations funds should be added to defense topline because the president didn't request enough money. Do you think Democrats will oppose that tactic again in the NDAA, and will Congress end up with the same budget fight it had last year?
Rep. Courtney: My sort of input to the caucus staff has been that people should just not lock themselves into, or dig themselves into, positions ... too soon in this process, because I really do think ... there's an honest disagreement about whether the budget agreement created a floor or a ceiling, and I sort of lean more towards the floor school of thought.
Rep. Courtney: But aside from that ... we've got to recognize that there are contingencies happening out there right now ... in Europe and the South China Sea that are going to make these kind of hard-and-fast budget decisions irrelevant. But, so far, we have not met as a caucus yet, so I don't want to put words in people's mouths, particularly [Armed Service ranking Democrat] Adam [Smith's].
Politico: During the last round of Base Realignment and Closure in 2005, the submarine base at Groton avoided the final closure list. Do you think another BRAC is coming, and do you sense any movement among your fellow lawmakers to approve one?
Rep. Courtney: It's been pretty stiff resistance ... and I don't see that changing this year for a whole host of reasons ... Plus, I mean let's face it. We're at the end of a presidential term ... If you look at it ... it would be implemented in 2019. So, you know, you're really saddling a new president with a policy like this that they really would be forced to implement, even if that really wasn't their own priority.
Politico: If another BRAC happens, how confident are you that Groton would stay off the list?
Rep. Courtney: I'm very bullish on Groton ... We've made significant improvements since 2005 and ... I think there's been a little bit of an eye-opening realization that the days of sort of the Cold War activity in the North Atlantic are not necessarily a thing of the past ... So, Groton's military value, I think, has been enhanced in multiple ways and that's why I'm bullish on it.
Politico: You're sometimes referred to as "Two Sub Joe." How did you earn that nickname?
Rep. Courtney: So when I was elected, the Virginia Class program was limping along at one a year ... which for Electric Boat was really half a sub, because it was a split program between Virginia and Connecticut. So we were able to get advanced procurement in that first year in office through the subcommittee. Seapower Subcommittee led the way ... As a result, [former Rep.] Gene Taylor gave me the nickname "Two Sub Joe." The Mohegan ... tribe in Connecticut ... they gave me [another nickname] ... My Indian name is "Two Iron Fish," which is pretty cool, I think.