Governors’ Military Powers Debated

By: - February 7, 2008 12:00 am

Should governors gain authority over all U.S. military forces in their states – not just National Guard troops – during terrorist attacks, hurricanes and other domestic disasters? 

A congressionally chartered commission last week recommended just that, expressing “great confidence in our governors.”

While some say it’s a good move, Pentagon officials have assailed the proposal, claiming it violates the Constitution, undermines presidential power and “invites confusion” over military command during emergencies. The National Governors Association (NGA) isn’t sure whether to back the plan, and the commission itself anticipates resistance.

Debate over the recommendation – and 94 others included in a Jan. 31 report by the Commission on the National Guard and Reserves – continues today (Feb. 7), when the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee questions commission members about the study. Congress created the 12-member panel in 2005 to examine the challenges facing the nation’s military reserves as the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan continue; more than 600,000 National Guard members and reservists have served in the two wars.

In its report , released after nearly two years of information-gathering, the commission found that reserve components are unprepared and under-equipped to confront major security threats at home, in large measure because of overseas deployments that consume manpower and equipment.

The commission offered broad proposals to improve the way the reserves operate, including using state-run National Guard troops exclusively to respond to domestic crises, such as the deadly tornadoes that tore through southern states this week.

Among the most striking recommendations made by the commission is its proposal to hand governors control over active-duty troops, such as disaster response teams from the U.S. Army or Air Force, in the immediate aftermath of a catastrophe. Governors now command state National Guard units during crises on American soil, but the president remains commander in chief of active-duty forces.

That division of power “places the nation at risk of a disjointed federal and state military response to a catastrophe,” the report concluded.

“We have great confidence in our governors,” said Arnold L. Punaro, a retired Marine major general and chairman of the commission. The report said governors already have responsibilities over the National Guard and should be trusted with authority over active-duty forces as well.

Pentagon officials attacked the proposal – and many others outlined in the report – by saying it would create new problems instead of solving existing ones.

“The proposal of the Punaro commission is simply at odds with the theory of a federal system of government,” said Paul McHale, assistant secretary of defense for homeland defense and Americas ‘ security. “It is at odds with Article II of the Constitution. There can be only one commander in chief, and that is the president of the United States . To decentralize that command and control to 50 separate state governors invites confusion.”

The commission maintains the change is “fully consistent with law and precedent.” Active-duty troops, for example, are routinely placed under the control of foreign commanders in military alliances such as NATO, according to the commission.

Expanding governors’ military powers would not require an act of Congress and could be accomplished by the Department of Defense in coordination with states, according to the report.

Wade Rowley, a commission member, acknowledged that the panel’s recommendation to give governors control over active components would be met with significant “pushback.”

But Rowley emphasized that, under the commission’s model, specific plans for dealing with disasters would be pre-negotiated between governors and the federal government, ensuring more efficient responses to catastrophes. A former member of the California Army National Guard, Rowley said a lack of coordination between state and federal authorities complicated responses to the Los Angeles riots of 1992, which he witnessed.

In 2005, then-Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco (D) clashed with federal authorities over how to respond to devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina, including over how to use the military to help residents.

“That’s one of the problems we have now: Everybody shows up and everybody’s in charge,” Rowley said.

At least two governors, Democrats Ruth Ann Minner of Delaware and Mike Easley of North Carolina , discussed the recommendation last year with Punaro, according to Kate Finnerty, Minner’s representative in Washington , D.C. Both supported gaining control over active-duty forces during emergencies, Finnerty said – though she stressed that the proposal originally came from Punaro.

Minner was “very supportive of being able to utilize her role as (state) commander in chief and taking responsibility for Delawareans,” Finnerty said.

Nolan Jones, the NGA’s deputy director of federal relations, said the group – which lobbies the federal government for policies helpful to states – has not yet decided whether to support the plan.

“I don’t know whether we will or not,” Jones said. “It’s something we haven’t decided on yet.”

President Bush last week signed into law the 2008 National Defense Authorization Act, which returns to governors the exclusive power to call up National Guard troops during most domestic disasters. Congress stripped governors of that authority in 2006 – largely in response to the handling of Hurricane Katrina – but restored it after heavy lobbying by the NGA late last year.

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