President Barack Obama finds himself between a rock and hard place on Capitol Hill and at the Pentagon, too. It’s familiar territory; he’s been there before. This time it’s the “don’t ask, don’t tell” debate.
[IMGCAP(1)]Last year, the president and his White House team agreed to a review process with Defense Secretary Robert Gates and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Michael Mullen, both of whom have directed commanders to come up with recommendations on how to implement open military service should Congress vote to repeal the DADT law. Clearly, Gates and Mullen wanted a full year, and political operatives at the White House who were not eager for a repeal vote until after the November 2010 midterm elections eagerly said yes.
The rub is President Obama also promised proponents of repealing DADT that he would tackle the law his first year in office. But a year ago when the president put together his very first defense budget to submit to Congress, he did not call for repeal of DADT. Well, the president is now submitting his second defense budget to Congress and all signs indicate he is not calling for repeal this time either, notwithstanding that in his State of the Union message to Congress and the American people, he said, “This year, I will work with Congress and our military to finally repeal the law that denies gay Americans the right to serve the country they love because of who they are. It’s the right thing to do.”
The House and Senate armed services committees are less than 30 days from voting on the defense bill. DADT originated in those two committees 17 years ago, and that is where the matter should be addressed now. The big votes on the defense bill are likely to come in late May and early summer, several months before those Pentagon recommendations are due on Capitol Hill. How does the president keep faith with Mullen and Gates on the very process he set up and, at the same time, ask key Senators and House Members to support him in repealing this discriminatory federal law? That is the president’s moral and political dilemma.
The immediate challenge is reconciling the timeline to ensure that the findings and implementation recommendations of the Pentagon Working Group are received and considered in an expeditious manner by both committees. This should be spelled out in the repeal legislation now before the committees.
The Senate DADT repeal leaders, Sens. Joe Lieberman (ID-Conn.) and Carl Levin (D-Mich.), and House champion Rep. Patrick Murphy (D-Pa.) are all aware of the need to ensure that the recommendations coming from the Pentagon are carefully considered before DADT is changed. Here are some recommendations for the committee leaders to consider:
1. DADT investigations and discharges will not end until the recommendations of the Pentagon Working Group have been received and considered; Secretary Gates will retain authority over this process.
2. Under the present schedule, the PWG will make its recommendations by Dec. 1, and 60 days later, DOD can issue directions and instructions to each service on how to proceed with open service.
3. An additional 60 days after that, each service can issue regulations.
4. Therefore, DADT would not be repealed until 180 days after the bill is signed.
5. And in early 2011, the committees can consider any additional recommendations from the Pentagon.
Congress is on the brink of repealing this law. This is no time to stumble over an arbitrary timeline and who should be waiting for whom. What is needed is a game change and sensible language that brings the Pentagon and the White House together with leaders on Capitol Hill to repeal DADT this year. Surely neither the White House nor the Pentagon want this historical change to happen without their imprint and leadership.
Anyone who doubts that Adm. Mullen wants to get repeal done right need only read his remarkable Feb. 2 testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee: “I am troubled by the fact that we have in place a policy which forces young men and women to lie about who they are. … It comes down to integrity — theirs as individuals and ours as an institution.”
Aubrey Sarvis is the executive director for Servicemembers Legal Defense Network.