A dispute between Sen. Larry Craig and the U.S. Air Force came out from behind closed doors on Friday. The Associated Press reported that the senator, fed up with the Air Force’s delay in adding more transport planes to Gowen Air National Guard Base in Boise, decided to hold up Senate approval of an unknown number of officer promotions in the air service.
Craig said that the Air Force had promised seven years ago to move four additional planes to Gowen if the base made improvements. Since that promise, $40 million has been spent to expand and upgrade the base’s facilities, according to the senator, but only four C-130 transport planes and another training aircraft are currently based there.
The senator said that a year and a half of his urging had not yielded any firm commitment or action from the Pentagon.
“There comes a time when you expect answers and issues ought to be resolved,” Craig said Monday afternoon. “Eighteen months is a long enough time for the Air Force to make a decision.”
Under the Senate’s “holds” practice, any senator can block action indefinitely and anonymously on a nomination, promotion or legislation. These holds, which are usually anonymous, are used frequently by senators to express disagreements with an administration’s action or policy. Congressional holds on military promotions are rare, and putting up a stop sign to airmen’s careers isn’t sitting well with some of Craig’s fellow Republicans.
“It is completely inappropriate to place a hold on the promotion of scores of servicemen and women who play no role whatsoever in establishing Air Force policy,” said Sen. John McCain, a member of the Armed Services Committee. “Those who serve our country in uniform, many returning from Iraq, should not be caught in the crossfire of a parochial dispute.”
White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer had muted criticism of Craig.
“The question of holds is a long-lasting Senate tradition that often can be problematic,” Fleischer said. “And it’s part of working with the Senate and helping the Senate to make progress, particularly on the question of appointments and nominees… Clearly, the president is always entitled to have a full team in place at all levels of appointments. And you have to just work these issues through with the Senate.”
Craig spoke by phone with Air Force Secretary James Roche on Monday, and the senator said Roche indicated he would be reviewing the Air Force’s mission at Gowen field. He said he was “disappointed” that the Air Force had decided to talk about the disagreement with the media.
Craig also wasn’t happy with Monday’s New York Timesarticle on the dispute.
The article featured several quotes from unidentified Air Force officers lambasting Craig, who they said “single-handedly delayed the careers of hundreds of officers and stymied important Air Force business for a handful of parochial planes.”
But Craig disputed several facts in the Times’s account. He said the number of officers’ promotions he is holding up is less than the 850 the Times reported. (Craig said he didn’t know exactly how many promotions are being held up, but he called the Times’s number “inflated.”) He also contended that a comment from a base spokesman, which indicated that the additional planes were not a high priority, was taken out of context.
“It’s not something people here are tapping their fingers over, waiting for them to show up,” the Times quoted Lt. Col. Tim Marsano, spokesman for the Idaho National Guard, as saying.
“What he was talking about was the current mission,” Craig said. “My job is to secure the future mission. He is not alone sitting there, he’s keeping the current mission operational, and it’s my job to make sure the future mission is operational.”
Marsano agreed that the Times took his comments out of context.
“Our primary focus is to be trained and ready to go for worldwide deployment,” he said. “We’re not so involved with politics.”
Marsano said the service members on the base “welcome the efforts of our congressional delegation to make this promise come to fruition… The infrastructure we have at Gowen field was designed to handle a full squadron. Ramp space, buildings, facilities… We are geared up to handle a full squadron of C130s or the follow-on to C130s.”
Gowen’s four C-130s returned in January from a tour in Oman, where they supported operations in Afghanistan and the Persian Gulf.
But Craig said the hold was necessary to get the Air Force’s attention, adding that, “communities have to plan around these kinds of commitments.”
The senator said that Air Force officers awaiting promotion paperwork to clear should expect a short delay.
“No pay has been stopped, and no jobs have been terminated,” Craig said. “This will probably be resolved in a few weeks.”