Capitol Hill Buzz: House takes aim at military band spending

AP News
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Posted: Jun 17, 2016 2:47 PM

WASHINGTON (AP) — The House has voted to spend less on brass and woodwinds so there's more money for bullets and bombs.

With little debate, lawmakers on Thursday approved an amendment by Rep. Martha McSally, R-Ariz., that restricts the Defense Department from footing the bill for military bands to play at dinners, dances and other social events.

McSally, a retired Air Force fighter pilot, said upward of $430 million a year goes for military musicians' instruments, uniforms and travel expenses. At the same time, budget pressures have caused a sharp decline in the combat readiness of the armed forces. The Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps are short of pilots and aircraft, she said, and the Army is heading toward having the smallest number of soldiers since World War II.

Yet there are 99 different bands in the Army alone, she said, who may have 20 or more performances scheduled on a given day around the world.

"For every dollar that is spent on our bands to entertain at social functions, that is a dollar we are not spending on national security, on our troops, and our families," McSally said. "Do we want to have aircraft parts funded or musical instruments?"

Lest she be thought of as an enemy of the arts, McSally noted she's not pulling the plug completely. Military bands will continue to perform ceremonial duties, including the funerals of service members and other special ceremonies.

Her amendment was added to the annual defense spending bill, which also passed the House on Thursday. McSally won the backing of an important ally: Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen, R-N.J., the chairman of the House defense appropriations subcommittee.

"The bands play an important role during ceremonies recognizing the sacrifices of the fallen, but they are not appropriate at every event," Frelinghuysen said.

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The mass shooting in Orlando appears to have caused nearly 60 House lawmakers to abandon their support for a measure that would have prohibited the U.S. government from searching the online communications of Americans without a warrant. Opponents of the measure cautioned it would compromise the investigation into the gunman and the ability to disrupt other terrorist plots.

The amendment to the annual defense spending bill led by Rep. Thomas Massie, R-Ky., lost Thursday on 222-198 vote. A year earlier, in June 2015, Massie's amendment easily cleared the House by a 255-174 margin, but it was later stripped out of a government-wide spending bill.

Three years ago, former NSA contractor Edward Snowden's revelations about government surveillance set off a fierce debate pitting civil libertarians concerned about privacy against more hawkish lawmakers fearful about losing tools to combat terrorism. Democrats and some Republicans pushed through a reauthorization of the Patriot Act last year that ended the National Security Agency's bulk collection of millions of Americans' phone records.

The House vote, days after the massacre, suggested the pendulum has swung back to a post-Sept. 11 attitude in the ongoing debate.

Massie said opponents to his amendment, primarily fellow Republicans, mischaracterized its intent and its bearing on the investigation of the Orlando massacre. Forty-nine people at a nightclub were killed early Sunday after Omar Mateen began shooting into the crowd. Mateen had pledged allegiance to the Islamic State.

Massie didn't name names, but two of his sharpest critics were the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif., and Rep. Lynn Westmoreland, R-Ga., who chairs the subcommittee that oversees the data-gathering National Security Agency.

Nunes and Westmoreland warned in a letter that U.S. intelligence agencies would be blocked from looking through lawfully collected information to see if Mateen was in contact with any terrorist groups outside the United States.

"We cannot be lulled into a false sense of security," they wrote in the letter, which was circulated in the House ahead of the vote. "As recent events have made tragically clear, terrorists will continue to attack the U.S. homeland."

Massie said he's not giving up.

"Congress should not abandon the Constitution in the face of terrorism," he said. "Our amendment merely reasserts the constitutional requirement that the government have probable cause and a warrant, both of which are easily obtainable in the case of Omar Mateen."

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Follow Richard Lardner on Twitter: http://twitter.com/rplardner