In the early 1960s, Cliff Stearns was a young Air Force officer stationed in Los Angeles. He used to travel around the US to work on the service's military space endeavors. He would go to Florida to accept ground equipment from contractors, up to Loring AFB, Maine, to take part in satellite testing, and back to California, to Vandenberg AFB, for launches.
The Air Force was on the cutting edge of technology, and he found that tremendously appealing. "At the time, the enormous possibilities were apparent to me," said Stearns, now a Republican congressman from Florida.
Fast forward to 1998. Now a 10-year veteran of the House, Stearns asked Air Force leaders what he could do to help them keep the service strong as it looked to develop new capabilities for the decades ahead. Their answer: Band together with like-minded legislators to support Air Force positions and needs on Capitol Hill.
He did just that. With fellow Air Force veterans Rep. Sam Johnson (R-Texas) and Rep. Joseph R. Pitts (RPa.), Stearns founded the Air Force Caucus last September. It is the first such group formed around pure Air Force issues.
"The Air Force Caucus, in itself, is a new phenomenon," said Stearns in an interview. "We felt that the service's mission is a little different from the other missions [of the US military]." For example, he said, "Control and exploitation of space-that's pretty big."
The new caucus now has 19 members. Each has Air Force or Air National Guard service in his or her background. Some had notable military careers. Co-chair Johnson, for example, was a fighter pilot from 1951 to 1979 and was a prisoner of war in the Vietnam War for nearly seven years. Rep. Jim Gibbons (RNev.), an Air Force (1967-71) and Air National Guard (197595) pilot, won the Distinguished Flying Cross as an RF-4C flight leader in the 1991 Persian Gulf War. Rep. Heather Wilson (RN.M.) is a 1982 graduate of the Air Force Academy, a former Rhodes Scholar, and was a US arms negotiator during the Bush Administration.
Members come from all parts of the country and both major parties.
"You spread the leadership and spread the politics, it helps," said Stearns.
So far, the group's formal schedule consists largely of breakfasts with the Air Force leadership. Stearns and his fellow co-chairs have been trying to organize a group trip to bases around the country for a firsthand look at service concerns.
Nowadays, a declining percentage of national lawmakers have military experience in their background, points out Stearns. In 1994, about 40 percent of the House of Representatives and 61 percent of the Senate, were counted as veterans. Today, the percentage in the House is less than 30 percent and less than 50 percent in the Senate.
Members without military experience sometimes have to be convinced that the post-Cold War world still contains real security dangers, such as the possible proliferation of nuclear warheads, said Stearns. Such attitudes make the value of a service-specific caucus to the men and women of the Air Force greater than ever, according to the group's co-founder.
"For people in the mainstream Air Force, thinking that there are 19 members of Congress willing to go to bat for them ... has a morale effect," said Stearns.
Caucus members function as an informal lobbying arm for Air Force projects and proposals, making their views known on the House floor, in hearings, and other private legislative forums.
They are an effective force for channeling service concerns to the leadership in both the House and Senate, claimed Stearns. "When a person like [Senate Majority Leader Trent] Lott gets a call from Representative Johnson, ... it's a lot different from somebody from the Air Force calling."
The fact that Congress has passed legislation urging implementation of a national missile defense shows that lawmakers do pay attention to Air Force concerns, according to Stearns.
"National missile defense is a big step," said Stearns. "The Air Force has to be at the forefront of this, and they don't have the funds."
Some of the issues the caucus is concerned about affect all the services. Pay and pensions are primary examples. Efforts to give the military a raise this year are a good start, noted Stearns, but, on the whole, US military pay still lags well behind that found in the US private sector.
Health Care Worries
Health care is another general worry. As chairman of the Veterans' Affairs subcommittee on health, Stearns is particularly concerned about the access to health care issue. He is supportive, for instance, of the effort to study whether opening up the Federal Employees Health Benefits Program to military retirees makes sense. He said that in some areas, the current Tricare health system is working all right but that in others it is not. In those problem spots, it might make sense to open up FEHBP to the military, he said.
He said FEHBP "gives choice. It has a very low inflation rate. It's private market oriented." Stearns added, "When you look at people who get benefits from the government, shouldn't people who volunteer to put their life on the line get first crack at good health care?"
In January, Stearns introduced legislation (H.R. 119) that would establish a 12-member task force to study the health care problems of Medicare-eligible military retirees. He said the group would look at all the promises concerning health care made to members of the military over the years and where the government is in terms of fulfilling those promises.
"Isn't the military deserving of high priority in its health care?" said Stearns.
However, most caucus members are concerned with specific Air Force issues. One is the lack of an officially designated civilian leader. Stearns and others have expressed concern to leading senators about the long period of time in which the Air Force has lacked a formally confirmed Secretary. Another is the struggle with the Marine Corps over the site of the proposed Air Force Memorial in Arlington, Va.
The Marine leadership has actively lobbied members of Congress in an attempt to block the Air Force Memorial, which would be in the general vicinity of the Iwo Jima Memorial on Arlington Ridge. Such active involvement by uniformed officers on a sensitive issue was inappropriate, according to Stearns. The Air Force Caucus wrote a letter to colleagues complaining about the Marine actions.
"The Marine Corps was stepping out and doing things when the Air Force wasn't," said Stearns. "The Air Force was not lobbying. The Marine commandant is not supposed to lobby. I think in this case the Air Force needed support."
Among the specific legislative items the Air Force Caucus will likely focus on this year are pilot retention, Air Force infrastructure, and acquisition funding-particularly missile defense funding.
Retention of pilots might by helped by making sure the Air Force has the legislative flexibility and money to pay bonuses. Other critical skill areas have personnel shortages, too, said Stearns. The Air Force-as well as the Navy-is experiencing retention gaps in first- and second-term enlisted members.
Second-term enlistment rates have dropped 13 percent for the Air Force over the last five years.
"It's one of the key areas we have to work on," said Stearns.
As to infrastructure, the Air Force may have more trouble with excess base capacity than other services, according to Stearns. With so many deployments around the world, particularly now over the Balkans, the Air Force is taking money that would otherwise be devoted to infrastructure maintenance and improvement and using it to pay for sorties.
Stearns said that he personally has some trouble with the way the Air Force is being used. Over the last five years, the service has taken part in 25 deployments, he points out. Yet in the 10 years before that, there were only 10 major deployments.
Peacekeeping deployments in Somalia, Haiti, and Bosnia have already cost $13 billion. The expense of the NATO operations over Kosovo will only be added on top of that.
"There comes a point where, if you stretch yourself too far in this business, you're going to collapse," he said.
Supplemental appropriations might eventually pay for sending US airpower around the world in 1999. Still, "we're going to have to look at a base closure round again," said Stearns. "The Air Force Caucus could stand up to the plate and say to colleagues, 'Look, we need some more closures. Either you fund the Air Force or cut their overhead.' "
Stearns himself has already seen his district lose one installation--NAS Cecil Field, Fla. He is not optimistic that a round of closures will be approved during this session of the 106th Congress. But he said it will happen eventually and that until then the Air Force should be circumspect in its planning for a future base network.
"I think the Air Force is wise not to talk about base closure and to have any particular lists, because if any list gets out, you're going to see all hell break loose from members of Congress who are in swing districts," Stearns told Air Force Association members at the AFA Air Warfare Symposium in Orlando, Fla., in February.
On missile defense, Stearns, himself a former aerospace engineer, thinks lawmakers are waking up to the economic and strategic implications of launching such an effort. It is necessary in a world where nuclear proliferation is continuing, yet it is an unexplored frontier.
"How is the Air Force going to do this?" he asked. "We're not just talking about funding a branch of the services. We're talking about a mission with such a broad implication."
Other areas where the Air Force might need legislative help include expanding air mobility, upgrading conventional bombers, and bolstering support for continued fighter modernization. Funding for spare parts for engines is becoming increasingly important.
"I realize there are a lot of engines that are being used in our planes that are 25 years old, and so getting the spare parts for them is crucial to morale and training," Stearns told AFA.
Push for Numbers
For the future, a goal of the Air Force Caucus is to motivate a larger, more active membership. Co-chair Stearns said that for his part he would like to see other organizations, as well as legislators, become members of the group.
"If we had a range of Air Force-oriented interest groups [in the Caucus], they could come together to advise us, 'Here's what we need right now,' " said Stearns.
Group trips could help further understanding of Air Force issues among legislators. Rounding up members for these delegation jaunts can be difficult, as they are often scheduled during breaks in the Congressional calendar, when district concerns compete for members' time. But there is no substitute for meeting the rank and file where they live and work, according to Stearns.
"We might hear from the Secretary of Defense, but most members of Congress don't hear from the enlisted people or the pilots," he said. "It's worthwhile to meet these men and women."
The caucus co-founder said that he believes the Air Force leadership has already found his group useful. They benefit just from knowing there are members of Congress they can call informally, he said, and let their hair down to reveal some of the things they're really concerned about.
"They can get a little parochial and not worry about it. They need an outlet for talking about their issues, without looking partisan. I'm hoping this helps them, too," said Stearns.
Rep. Cliff Stearns
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