Dellums' Lonely Fight In Armed Services

March 19, 1994|By Gilbert A. Lewthwaite | Gilbert A. Lewthwaite,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- You might think that Rep. Ronald V. Dellums would be in his element these post-Cold War days on Capitol Hill. A California Democrat with roots deep in the liberalism of the 1960s, he now serves as chairman of the House Armed Services Committee.

How sweet it should be for an anti-war protester who had "Onward Christian Soldiers" removed as too bellicose from the hymnal at his regular place of worship, the Allen Temple Baptist Church in Oakland, Calif., to be legislative overseer of military downsizing.

He sees the nation's security threatened as much at home as abroad, with funding needed more to address poverty, education and health than to increase the nation's armory.

The votes aren't there

The problem for Mr. Dellums is that while his time may seem to have come, he lacks the power, even as chairman, to exploit it.

"It is clear that his politics have not changed," said Terry Nyhous, defense analyst at the accounting firm of Price Waterhouse. "But I don't think he has the votes to do anything that he wants to do. In terms of philosophy I don't think you will see his philosophy reflected in the budget at all."

Democrats outnumber Republicans 34 to 22 on his committee, but they often desert him to form a majority with Republicans, frustrating Mr. Dellums' initiatives.

He wanted the ban on homosexuals in the military to be lifted. It was not. He opposed a military pay raise. The forces got one. He tried to block an increase in anti-missile defense funding. It was approved.

His limited clout contrasts with that of Sam Nunn, the centrist Democrat from Georgia who chairs the Senate Armed Services Committee. President Clinton sought Mr. Nunn's counsel in setting parameters for gays-in-the-military reforms and in laying down limits in defense spending cuts over the next five years. There was little sign of major input from Mr. Dellums.

"He carries less weight than Senator Nunn, primarily because of the ideological divisions and the way they cut in Congress," said H.

Baker Spring, a defense analyst with the conservative Heritage Foundation.

"For all intents and purposes, Representative Dellums is in a minority within his committee, within the House at large and the Congress as a whole. If you were to measure his effectiveness in having his desired outcome in terms of the defense budget and policies, he has not been particularly effective."

George Withers, Mr. Dellums' spokesman, said the committee chairman would not be available for an interview because he eschews "the cult of personality."

Said Mr. Withers: "He does not think his personality is worth all the kind of focus reporters put on it."

Changes since 1971

Mr. Dellums, pinstripe-groomed, shoes shined and manner courtly, controls proceedings in the Armed Services Committee with an efficient charm. He is quite different from the Berkeley radical with a taste for traditional African garb and political protest who came to Capitol Hill in 1971.

Mr. Dellums, 58, is credited with making the committee a more open forum for debate without sacrificing its ability to move legislation to the floor of the House. The liberal drive that turned him from a psychiatric social worker into first a local, and then a national, politician is now balanced by a pragmatism that brings praise from even his staunch Capitol Hill opponents.

"Philosophically, we don't agree on too many things, but otherwise, we have a good working relationship," said Rep. Floyd D. Spence, the ranking Republican on the Armed Services Committee and an advocate of stronger defense.

"I give him my little thing about how we are cutting [defense spending] too much, and he will come along and say we ought to be cutting more. He is fair, and he allows free discussion of the issues."

Eschewing arm-twisting of his own party members, Mr. Dellums has also given minority Republicans by letting them hire more staff to prepare their arguments.

"It's a very different atmosphere than it was before," a Republican committee staffer said. "He doesn't try to drive the process as his predecessor did. There is more opportunity for conservative Democrats and Republicans to work coalitions if they want to."

Such coalitions are more likely to hurt Mr. Dellums' liberal interests than the interests of the Clinton administration. He seems prepared to accept that fact without rancor as he shepherds the administration's defense legislation through his committee.

No embarrassments

"He hasn't embarrassed the president, and that, in this Congress, counts for an achievement," said Catherine Kelleher of the liberal Brookings Institution.

When Mr. Dellums replaced Les Aspin as committee chairman, after Mr. Aspin became defense secretary, his ascension to the Armed Services chair sent shock waves through the military establishment. Here came a politician who had opposed most things military, whether the invasion of Grenada, the Persian Gulf war, the B-2 bomber or the "star wars" initiative.

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