Union Tribune

December 02, 2002

Hunter is poised to become leader of Armed Services
He would shape policy and Pentagon budgets

 
DANA WILKIE
Copley News Service

WASHINGTON -- The man who stands below the cluster of swords mounted in the House Armed Services Committee room -- the large guy with rumpled coat and tired eyes -- still looks a lot like the young lawyer who cajoled and charmed his way onto the committee 22 years ago.

He is grayer, of course, and his face has settled in fleshy folds around the chin. But when a colleague whispers something, Duncan Hunter's face bursts into the same wide, roguish smile he used long ago to convince the skeptical that a brand-new congressman from San Diego should help shape America's military.

If all goes as planned, Hunter will become chairman of this committee in January, giving the conservative Republican a chance to mold defense policies and Pentagon budgets at a time when America stands on the verge of war. The rise of this El Cajon politician marks a personal triumph for a man who has waited nearly a quarter-century to put his stamp on the nation's armed forces. And it's a lesson in how a gregarious nature and single-minded pursuit can get one far in Washington.

Hunter will take the chairman's seat from Rep. Bob Stump, an Arizona Republican who is retiring. When Congress returns after its winter recess, Hunter expects to have enough committee votes to lead a panel responsible for a wealth of military affairs -- strategy and deployment, troop pay and quality of life, and a defense budget approaching $400 billion.

Hunter, 54, is slipping into a role for which he has prepared most of his adult life. In 1980, after snatching a congressional seat from 18-year Democratic veteran Lionel Van Deerlin, Hunter quickly wrapped up some cases at his law office near Chicano Park, then flew to Washington to persuade those in California's congressional delegation to put him on the Armed Services Committee. He was 32 years old.

"My dad said, `Your real campaign is just starting; you've got to get on Armed Services,' " recalls Hunter, who -- like his father -- served in the military. "He thought that was the most important thing we do in Congress, is provide for defense."

A wonkish sort who loves the technological minutiae of military weapons, Hunter became chairman of one subcommittee that buys equipment and weapons and another that conducts research on them. He worked at updating weapons, developing ballistic missiles systems and using defense dollars to secure the U.S.-Mexico border.

There are some in San Diego, however, who view Hunter's push to wall off the border as narrow-minded and intolerant.

"In the world we live in, you can't really afford to have an isolationist mentality," said Craig Barkacs, a lawyer and University of San Diego professor who ran unsuccessfully against Hunter in 2000. "Our best hope of not having people come across the border is for there to be a successful and prosperous Mexico."

Having spent his entire congressional career on Armed Services, Hunter is clearly comfortable quizzing the likes of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and dissecting aerial maps of enemy nations. Straightforward and plain-spoken, he often asks questions tinged with the black-and-white conservatism that has marked his career and is sure to mark his chairmanship.

He has made his priorities clear: He will push to build up military troops, modernize weapons, increase the defense budget -- by as much as $50 billion on the next go-round -- and trim the Defense Department's bureaucracy.

Observers predict Hunter will be a more energetic leader than Stump, and likely a more persuasive one. Some call him dynamic. Others say he gets things done with a combination of persistence and good nature.

On a recent September morning, after protesters disrupted a hearing on Iraq weapons that Hunter was chairing, the congressman quipped that "we're putting them down as undecided."

"He's definitely in charge of the hearings because he's got a take-charge personality," said Ivan Eland, director of defense policy studies for the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank here.

Earlier this month, the White House would not support nearly $400 billion in 2003 defense programs because full retirement and disability benefits would go to all veterans with service-related disabilities and 20 years of service. Hunter got the White House to approve benefits for those with a Purple Heart or who had suffered injuries during training or hazardous duty.

"Those in the White House said over and over again that they wouldn't take that position, but through his persistence, he was successful in overcoming their objections," said Rep. Jimmy Saxton, a New Jersey Republican on Armed Services.

But Hunter's resolution gave benefits to only about 35,000 of the 550,000 veterans who needed them, said David Autry, spokesman for Disabled American Veterans, who believes Hunter scaled back the benefits package to spare the Republican president some heat.

"He negotiated with the White House rather than run the risk of the
president vetoing the bill and having the veto overridden (by Congress)," Autry said. "That would have hurt the (Republican) party and perhaps the president as well."

Hunter is skilled at winning money for defense contractors, including those in San Diego. Some, however, believe Hunter sometimes puts contractors ahead of common sense. He once devised a plan allowing two shipbuilders to develop submarines whose elements would be melded into a single vessel. It
gave the shipbuilders work, but the Navy hated the idea. And despite the cost overruns and delays associated with the Patriot antimissile system, he  continues to support this Lockheed Martin weapon.

"People get on the Armed Services Committee because they have defense industries or military bases in their districts, and they want to keep shoveling money toward those," Eland said. Though he has had opportunities to serve on other committees, Hunter never has.

"If you define the major problem that we have in Congress, it would be that we're too spread out," he said. "Really concentrating on armed services has enabled me to focus."

A man with a gregarious nature and seniority collects a lot of chits. 
Hunter has known Dick Cheney since Cheney was a congressman and often phones the vice president just to chat. When Hunter built a log cabin in the Blue Ridge Mountains, several of his Capitol Hill colleagues came to help. When he has lunch at a restaurant here, his packed table often erupts with animated stories and loud laughter.

When Saxton recently lost his father, Hunter drove more than 300 miles to attend the funeral, though Saxton did not ask his friend to be there.

"He goes out of his way for his friends, more than most other people do," Saxton said. "Everyone likes him."