TPM Exclusive Interview With Rep. Joe Sestak (D-PA)

April 15, 2009 8:11 a.m.

We’ve spent a lot of time reporting on the emerging defense budget debate, and the rhetoric around it for some time, but eventually that will all give way to Congressional wheeling and dealing, and leaders will emerge on all sides of the issue.

The House member who’s most dedicated himself to advancing Defense Secretary Robert Gates’ cause is Rep. Joe Sestak (D-PA).

Sestak is a retired Rear Admiral, the highest ranking military officer ever to serve in Congress, and a member of the Armed Services Committee. I spoke with him yesterday in detail about how the fight is shaping up, and why he takes the position he does.“I haven’t been back in Congress, so I can’t say with great certainty,” Sestak said. “But from the press reports, there are Congressmen that have spoken up with concern over this. And their understandable concern from their representative perspective, viewpoint, is that it affects jobs within their district.”

Sestak says that because “the defense industry and jobs is much more focused within a Representative’s district,” the House–not the Senate–will be the likely choke point for Pentagon and Pentagon procurement reform. “It might be 20 percent of his work force.”

Many of Sestak’s own constituents might be at risk if the administration gets its way–“parts of the F-22, some structural elements of it, are built in my district”–and his support for the elimination of the F-22 and other programs put him in the minority in Congress, where most members aren’t so amenable to scrapping contracts in their own districts. I asked him whether he thought his arguments would convince powerful House members–House Armed Services Chairman Ike Skelton (D-MO), for instance, and Rep. Jack Murtha (D-PA)–to support the administration’s plan on the merits.

He said Skelton might come around given sufficient time. “I think very highly of both of them,” Sestak said.

“I work extremely closely with Ike Skelton. My take on Ike Skelton is that he really does sense that a need is required in our military. I think as he should that he wants to assure that he can be convinced of that. This is something that just came out…. I think Ike Skelton will want to work his way through this in a very deliberate way. So I can’t predict. But I watched his statement and he made it clear that he wants to look at this. So I can’t predict. But that is typical, and I think wisely Ike Skelton.”

Assuming that Obama is successful though (a major assumption) and that the Pentagon moves away from Cold War weapons systems and reorients itself toward future combat scenarios, should the government reduce real spending?

Sestak says that in the near-term, we’re going to need more money. “I’m very supportive of spending being increased this year,” Sestak says. “[T]hat’s the problem with Iraq: It has challenged our military readiness so sorely. The real price of Iraq is still to come home.”

But how about down the line?

“[I]n the future you don’t necessarily, can’t predict, don’t necessarily need this continuous increase in defense costs,” Sestak says. “[W]e’ll be forced to flatline in the future–can it be less? Potentially.”

We’ll have a full transcript and audio for you later today.

Late update: Audio below.

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