By: Herb Jackson
He pushed for and then got an extra $500 million for expanded intelligence-gathering around the world, including the aircraft — manned or unmanned — needed to carry it out. And all of it was money the Obama administration did not request.
But that outlay was barely noticed in the debate over a $1.1 trillion omnibus spending bill for 2016 that Congress approved before taking its Christmas break.
It is a sign of Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen’s power as chairman of the defense appropriations subcommittee — power that could grow under the new House speaker, Paul Ryan — that he could direct where half a billion dollars should go without a major battle.
It is also a sign of the low-key style of the 11-term congressman from Morris County — whose ancestors were in government before there was a United States — that his success on the surveillance measure got so little attention.
As others in Congress race to microphones or elbow their way onto talk shows to challenge the administration’s military or foreign policy strategy, Frelinghuysen never issued a news release after increasing defense spending amid fears of domestic terror attacks and the spread of ISIS.
A Vietnam veteran, Frelinghuysen said he decided after receiving briefings — some of which occurred in a secure room in the Capitol basement — that the United States was not getting enough intelligence from some of the places that needed to be watched.
“The focus is on the Middle East, so there are a lot of eyes on the battlefield,” he said in a recent interview. “But there are other things that are happening around the world, in Northern Africa, things happen in the Southern Hemisphere and in Central and South America. We need to keep an eye on influences from the Middle East or, let’s say, indigenous groups, that might be involved in terrorism,” he said.
So the 2,009-page omnibus spending bill included a paragraph that Frelinghuysen had added to a bill the House passed in the spring. The paragraph says that on top of everything else provided by specific line items, there is $500 million available “to improve the intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities of the Department of Defense.”
The bill requires Defense Secretary Ash Carter to tell congressional committees what he wants to do with the money at least 30 days in advance, but it’s possible the public will never learn which countries will be targeted for spying as a result of Frelinghuysen’s efforts.
Though Congress has barred members from filling bills with earmarks — line items for specific projects in their districts or for pet issues — it still allows appropriators to direct broader program priorities, even if the administration has not asked for the money.
For perspective, $500 million represents slightly less than the total economic aid the United States will give to Ukraine next year, or a little more than American taxpayers will spend on missile defense systems in Israel.
It is also more than three times the savings commuters nationally will get next year from an expanded tax deduction for mass transit expenses that was included in a $621 billion tax package that passed along with the omnibus spending bill.
The transit deduction was mentioned in news releases from several members of the New Jersey delegation in the hours after the budget deal was announced. And last week, both Sens. Cory Booker and Bob Menendez, joined by Rep. Donald Payne, followed up with a news conference about it at a Montclair train station.
But while Frelinghuysen’s $500 million got some mention when it was included during the spring in the House version of the defense appropriations bill, it was dwarfed by other news when the final details of the $1.1 trillion omnibus came out earlier this month.
One reason may be that $500 million represents less than one-thousandth of the total spending for defense and intelligence next year. The part of the budget under the control of Frelinghuysen’s defense subcommittee totaled about $573 billion, or more than half the omnibus, which covered all appropriations for the federal government next year.
“Our committee has jurisdiction over all of our armed services and all of our intelligence, every aspect,” Frelinghuysen said.
“CIA, NSA — in the old days it used to be known as No Such Agency — we’re responsible for them,” he said. “The Geospatial [Intelligence] Agency, we’re responsible for space architecture. We’re responsible for nuclear defense. We’re responsible for nuclear triad, you know, land-based, space-based, sea-based, the submarine fleet. Quite honestly, it’s a remarkably interesting portfolio.”
Frelinghuysen is the fifth member of his family to serve in Congress, a line that goes back to Frederick Frelinghuysen, who was in the New Jersey Assembly when the Constitution was ratified in 1787, then was appointed a brigadier general by President George Washington for the campaign against western Indians. He was elected to the Senate in 1793.
Rodney Frelinghuysen, who once served in the Assembly, has been in the House since 1995. His district, which now includes about one-quarter of the population of Passaic County, is heavily Republican, with his margin of victory in the elections ranging from a low point of 19 percentage points to as much as 46 percentage points.
Since becoming defense appropriations chairman in 2013, Frelinghuysen said he has built a close working relationship with Armed Services Chairman Mac Thornberry of Texas and Intelligence Chairman Devin Nunes of California. The three, along with House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy of California, traveled together last December to the Middle East to assess the battle against the Islamic State group.
“We meet every 10 days to discuss without staff where we’re going, the things we need to do,” he said. “There is always a view that staff runs everything down here. But in reality, the head of the Intelligence Committee, the head of the Armed Services Committee and Frelinghuysen, we’ve never had a more congenial, stronger working relationship.”
The three announced on Dec. 11 that they will have a joint investigation into allegations that the military manipulated intelligence reports to make the fight against the Islamic State group look as if it was going better than it is.
While those relationships help him avoid the kind of rivalries between committees that are known to erupt in Congress, Frelinghuysen also said he tries to avoid partisan battles with Democrats. He said he works very closely with Rep. Pete Visclosky of Indiana, the top Democrat on the panel. And after negotiations over the omnibus led to House and Senate panels meeting together, Frelinghuysen was also praised by Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois, the top Democrat on the Senate’s defense subcommittee.
“He’s very constructive, I find him to be an easy person to work with,” Durbin said. “When there are differences, he’s very open about them. He’s not secretive or misleading. … He’s been a joy to work with.”
When he took over the subcommittee just over two years ago, Frelinghuysen said he was concerned that another round of base closures could be coming that could reduce military spending in New Jersey, which took a hit in the last round when Fort Monmouth was closed. The omnibus bars the Pentagon from even planning for another round of base closures in the coming year.
Committee chairmen could find themselves with even more power in the coming year because Ryan has said he wants to move away from massive bills negotiated at the end of the year with deadlines or government shutdowns looming.
Frelinghuysen said one issue he expects to discuss often in the coming year, though he was unclear whether any action would result, is the ability of terrorist groups to avoid surveillance by using encrypted applications and devices to communicate.
“There is this issue we discuss in our committee in a variety of private settings, the frustration that many members of the intelligence community have, they can’t do the job to protect us,” he said. “Certainly I support the Constitution, and I respect people’s privacy, but I also think we need to err on the side of protecting us.”