POLITICO Pro Q&A: Rep. Rick Larsen

Sep 20, 2016 Issues: 114th Congress Accomplishments, Health Care, Veterans

Politico: POLITICO Pro Q&A: Rep. Rick Larsen
By Connor O’Brien

Rep. Rick Larsen is pushing his colleagues to take a long view of overlooked technologies and the pivot to Asia-Pacific.

As a member of the House Armed Services Committee and co-chair of the bipartisan Electronic Warfare Working Group, the Washington state Democrat is fighting to reduce what he calls "feast-or-famine funding" for electronic warfare research and acquisition.

Electronic warfare, which involves "basically building platforms to shoot electrons," is at a disadvantage to more conventional weapons systems when it comes to obtaining consistent funding and attention, he argues.

"If you build platforms to shoot bullets or missiles, things you can see and touch, it's a lot easier for Congress to fund those things," the eight-term congressman said.

And as a co-founder — with now-Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) — of the U.S.-China Working Group, Larsen is quick to emphasize the complex web of relationships between the two countries beyond just military exchanges. The same, he argues, is true for the Obama administration's pivot to Asia, which involves "all the tools of national power the U.S. has."

"There's no one line item in the budget for the rebalance," Larsen said, adding that he hopes the commitment to Asia will continue under the next president.

When it comes to the National Defense Authorization Act, however, Larsen has more under-the-radar priorities, which he outlined in a letter last month to Armed Services leaders. Among those priorities, he's pushing for continuity of Tricare health coverage for National Guardsmen called to state active duty for natural disaster response and allowing the Women, Infants and Children nutritional assistance program to operate on military bases.

POLITICO sat down with Larsen on Capitol Hill to discuss his defense priorities. Here are some edited excerpts:

How would you describe your priorities this year on Armed Services?

One is we've got an issue with National Guard health insurance, Tricare. There's a continuity issue — when you're on federal active duty and you switch to state active duty they lose their federal insurance for that period of time that they're on state active duty. ... That's really more of a quality-of-life issue for folks in the National Guard. We had this situation in Washington state — we had the Oso mudslide — and brought folks in to help the National Guard.

Then, there's moving forward on a lot of other issues including ... seeing what we can do to move to new reactor designs that can use low enriched uranium more efficiently and move away from [highly enriched uranium] use in our naval reactors. It's a long-term goal, but it's certainly an important one and supports our nonproliferation goals.

I'll just mention one more, and that's the Electronic Warfare Caucus. I'm a co-chair with [Rep.] Jackie [Walorski]. I've been working on this for 16 years, and it's only in the last couple years that the DoD established an ... executive committee on electronic warfare to try to get a better handle on its defense-wide EW activities and funding and technology acquisition.

My joke was that the Next-Gen Jammer, by the time they're done with it, was going to be called the Last-Gen Jammer because it was taking so long to get it done. ... There's enough of a concern that we ought to find a way to both bring EW under one umbrella in the DoD so that we can maybe shorten the acquisition timeline and shorten the deployment timeline of ... technologies that we can use.

It seems like there haven't been many new developments in U.S. capability, but also a surge in other nations' capabilities. Are there any provisions you're pushing to that end?

What happens in EW is that it is usually a victim of feast-or-famine funding. When we are very active in deployments, whether it's Iraq or Afghanistan, then electronic warfare gets a lot of attention. When our operational tempo in our military goes down, it gets less attention.

It's in part because you're basically building platforms to shoot electrons. If you build platforms to shoot bullets or missiles, things you can see and touch, it's a lot easier for Congress to fund those things. If you're trying to fund those things that you can't see, but are very effective and necessary, it's tougher for Congress to fund those things.

What I've been trying to do along with the members of the Electronic Warfare Caucus, back to when I started in 2000 ... is try to really emphasize this basic point: Electronic warfare is, in fact, part of warfare, and it needs to receive the kind of consistent attention in terms of funding in acquisition and research that you would put into building a new ship or building a new land assault vehicle or what have you.

I think we're finally getting to that point after many years of banging my head against the wall.

You're also co-chair of the U.S.-China Working Group. Of the many issues between the two countries, what are they key issues there?

The first thing to note about the U.S.-China Working Group when Mark Kirk and I started this in 2005, our goal wasn't to focus on one thing about the relationship because what we discovered is that there are many relationships the U.S. has with China.

There's a national security relationship sometimes. We're hand-in-hand on issues, and sometimes we're not. There's an economic relationship on trade. There's diplomatic relationships.

When you look at the rebalance, the president was in the Asia-Pacific ... recently, and made the point — and continues to make the point — that the rebalance is not about the military. It's not about diplomacy. It's not about the economy. It's not about people-to-people exchanges. It's about all of it. And there's no one line item in the budget for the rebalance. It's a variety of tools, all the tools of national power the U.S. has, and reengaging those into the Asia-Pacific region, which I hope will continue under the next administration.

When it comes to ... defense issues, again, it's not a very clean set of relationships. We want to have China participate in RIMPAC for a variety of reasons, including the fact that China is investing in its navy. Its navy will be out in the water with other navies, and China's navy needs to learn how to work with other navies for any number of reasons.

Also on national security, we rely on China in many ways when it comes to North Korea. ... The flip side of this is that the South China Sea is a potential hotspot when it comes to China and its neighbors, which brings the United States into this discussion because some of those neighbors are allies.

There's not a really clean way to describe the national security relationship between the United States and China because on some things we rely on each other to make the clocks tick. And on other things we're frankly headed down different paths and, hopefully, both countries can see a way to get us closer on the same path.

On the military aspect of the pivot to the Pacific, are you satisfied? Is there anything different you'd like to see out of the administration or Congress?

Well, just checking the boxes on this ... I think even the Bush administration started this, then there was a further commitment from the Obama administration, to move 60 percent of the [naval] assets to the Pacific. And that's done and that was a positive step.

The Australians really wanted to reengage the treaty relationship and, as a result, we have agreed to do rotating marine forces at Darwin. That's a positive for the two countries. ... We have reengaged New Zealand through both the Wellington Declaration and the Washington Declaration that past secretaries of defense, ministers of defense signed and agreed to.

The military, or national security aspects of the rebalance, are real. They're funded. They're moving forward. And I think they're also important for our friends and allies. They want us in the region, and they want us there in a variety of ways, including having a military presence.

You voted against NDAA earlier this year, but you're now a member of the conference committee negotiating it. What do you think needs to change for you to support the conference report?

There's a million things going on with the conference report, as I'm sure you know, and my support is going to depend upon sort of the whole package. One of the things that I think is important is that the defense committees writ large need to catch up with the rest of this country and we need to drop this LGBT discrimination provision. The rest of the country has moved beyond this, yet in the Armed Services Committee we can't get past it. ... I think it sends the wrong message to men and women who are asking to serve in our military and the men and women who work in the civilian community among who we depend as well for supporting our military activities. That's one thing.

The whole debate around OCO ... is extremely important. We are writing the defense budget based on phantom money, in my view. ... We were getting back to the point where if the Pentagon wanted it, it was in the base budget and if it was strictly related to operations then it was in what became Overseas Contingency [Operations]. ... And now we're slipping back into the ways that we did in the 2000s in order to get around sequester. ... I'd lift the sequester for domestic and non-domestic. That's fine with me, but not just for the [defense] funding.

There is an actual principle to stand [for] about how we responsibly budget in government, not just for the Defense Department, but in the government, that is tied to this debate on defense. And it's not a principle I'm willing to give up.

So is the OCO issue a dealbreaker for you?

We're keeping all of our options open I think right now. But I can tell you this: OCO should pay for OCO, and it shouldn't pay for the base budget. And second, we need to stop relying on OCO to get around the sequester. That's the principle that we're trying to drive this debate.

On the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, you opposed and FAA reauthorization that would have privatized the air traffic control system and you cited some defense concerns with that bill. What were those?

In the debate in the T&I Committee, there wasn't a very good understanding of how our Department of Defense and our FAA work together, both in times of national tragedy but also in the day-to-day operations of our military flying around the country. There's a stack of memoranda of agreement and understanding, you know, 10 feet tall of how this relationship between the FAA and Department of Defense will work.

I'm just not willing to hand that responsibility over to a privatized nonprofit board with no guarantee that the DoD will continue to have that stable, established relationship so it can operate in U.S. airspace. And that's just one of the concerns. That's the defense concern.