After almost 15 months on the job, U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has failed to build a strong relationship with the House panel that funds the Pentagon, according to its chairman.
Representative Rodney Frelinghuysen, the New Jersey Republican who heads the House Appropriations defense subcommittee, said he’s had only infrequent contact with Hagel, a former Republican senator and fellow Vietnam War veteran, since taking over the panel in November.
“I don’t find it an ego thing,” Frelinghuysen, who’s sat on the panel since 1999, said in an interview. “If one committee controlled your entire budget, I think you might make some effort to build up personal relationships. I think it is a no-brainer.”
Frelinghuysen has said his panel may be ready to start working by the end of this month on the defense spending bill for the year that begins Oct. 1. Hagel has signaled through his spokesman that he’s unhappy that the separate defense policy measure being taking up in the House this week rejects many of his initiatives to cut costs in a time of declining Pentagon budgets.
Asked about Frelinghuysen’s remarks, the spokesman, Rear Admiral John Kirby, said Hagel “has great respect for Representative Frelinghuysen and for the important work of his committee.” He said Hagel and Frelinghuysen met within the past 10 days.
“These were good, substantive discussions about the defense budget and the strong relationship both men want to maintain,” Kirby said.
Frelinghuysen made his observations about Hagel during an interview on defense spending issues. He said the secretary appears to spend more time traveling abroad or with the House and Senate Armed Services committees, which produce the annual measure authorizing defense policy, than with his panel, which appropriates funds along with its Senate counterpart.
“Is he aware that we actually both served in Vietnam?” Frelinghuysen, whose website says he served with an Army engineering unit in the Mekong Delta, said of Hagel. “I don’t think he has the slightest idea. There are not so many of us who are veterans.”
Another committee Republican, Representative Kay Granger of Texas, said of Hagel, “It would benefit what he’s trying to do to reach out more.”
While Representative Jim Moran of Virginia, a Democrat who serves on the House panel, said Hagel has “an awful lot on his desk to deal with,” he also said,“I do think it would probably be a good idea to reach out a little.”
“If Rodney is concerned, it is a legitimate concern,” Moran said. “I think the world of Chuck too. I know Secretary Hagel is doing a great job, so if there is a way for him to strengthen his ties with the legislative branch, I think it would only be to his benefit.”
Frelinghuysen’s Senate counterpart, Democrat Richard Durbin of Illinois, said he meets with Hagel regularly for breakfast.
“He has reached out to senators more than his predecessors as far as I am concerned,” Durbin said. “I think he’s doing a good job.”
Democratic Senator Carl Levin of Michigan, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, which authorizes defense programs, said “I am not one of the people who complained” about Hagel. “I think he’s got a very good relationship with the Congress.”
Frelinghuysen said he was particularly perplexed by the lack of interest by Hagel or other Pentagon officials in talking to him and a small group of subcommittee members after they returned from a trip this year to Afghanistan, Pakistan and Jordan.
“No interest on the part of the Pentagon on our return -- absolute zilch,” he said. “I think it’s bizarre, myself.’