Cowboy Congressman Corralling US Defense Spending

Cowboy Congressman Corralling US Defense Spending

By Emily Cadei



Every year, the United States spends hundreds of billions of taxpayer dollars on defense. Thornberry is trying to make sure they're put to better use.

By Emily Cadei

Rep. William McClellan “Mac” Thornberry is not a frivolous man. And that’s surely a good thing, as he’s the guy lined up to tackle one of the most frustrating and elusive riddles in Washington: how to tame the monster budget at the Department of Defense.

What does he do for fun in his spare time? The question stumps this son and grandson of ranchers from the Texas Panhandle.

“If they ever give me a day off, and I’m not in D.C., I’ll be at the ranch,” he finally tells OZY. “There’s always plenty to do there.”

… less manpower, less spending, but better strategic thinking.

Plenty to do. For sure, it will be just like that for his next assignment in Washington, as the likely next chair of the House Armed Services Committee in 2015. Thornberry thinks the Pentagon’s bloated procurement system could be simpler, less wasteful and more efficient, just like everyone else who’s tried to fix it. But the issue is more urgent than ever, as the U.S. military stares down spending cuts and retrenchment after more than a decade of combat in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The lean, silver-haired 56-year-old is a lawyer by training, with no military experience. But the senior House Republican does have experience in Washington, a rare long view and a reputation for serious, thoughtful problem-solving. The current chairman, California Republican Buck McKeon, is retiring and has endorsed Thornberry for the post.

As the House committee’s top dog, Thornberry would oversee the Pentagon as it charts a path defined less by full-scale war and more by security partnerships and operations to manage flashpoints in places like North and West Africa and the South China Sea. That requires less manpower and less spending, but better strategic thinking.


“I have no illusions that we’re going to come up with a silver bullet. There is no silver bullet,” Thornberry says of his reform efforts. “So what we can do is try to identify a handful of things that make it better.” Thornberry’s focus right now: understanding the incentives and disincentives that drive federal bureaucrats’ spending decisions. He’s gathering suggestions from a range of officials and defense industry execs, which he hopes to narrow down by the beginning of next year.

He’s a make-a-list kind of guy.

“I don’t necessarily mean you have to take baby steps,” he says. But “you have to break it up into understandable, discrete pieces.” Otherwise, “you won’t be successful and you’ll end up with consequences you don’t intend.”

Rhode Island Rep. James Langevin, the leading Democrat on the Armed Services subcommittee that Thornberry currently chairs, says Mac, as everyone calls him, is “definitely a policy wonk. He likes to immerse himself in the details.”

He’s a Reagan conservative, devoted to small government, but not a fire-breather, which could hurt him when committee chairs are picked.

“Oversight is a critically important part of our responsibility up here,” Langevin explains. That takes people like Thornberry, “who are willing to dig into the facts and dissect various problems.”

“Our job is really preparing ahead,” Thornberry says.

Politicians focused on the crisis of the day aren’t good at that, but somehow Thornberry has managed to defy that inclination. He proposed legislation creating a Department of Homeland Security in March 2001, six months before the Sept. 11 attacks prompted President George W. Bush to do the same. And he’s been one of the first lawmakers raising alarm bells about cybersecurity.

Thornberry was just 36 when he swept into office as part of the “Republican Revolution” orchestrated by Newt Gingrich in 1994. Before that he was a legislative aide in the Reagan administration and for a House Republican from Texas.

Thornberry takes his oversight responsibility seriously. Or maybe it’s just his personality. He has given all of his staffers and summer interns a copy of the book The Curmudgeon’s Guide to Getting Ahead.

It covers “basic things about how young people should comport themselves in order to be respected,” Thornberry explains, a bit sheepishly, when a staffer pulls it out. “The first section of the book is about grammar. Don’t say ‘like, like, like.’” Apparently, a pet peeve.

He’s also a stickler for constitutional authority and the division of power. He’s been a vocal critic of what he believes are Obama administration overreaches and voted to go ahead with House Republicans’ lawsuit against the president in July.

His public persona is cowboy-cum-political philosopher, peppering his Texas-twanged remarks with historical references and quotes on government from Winston Churchill, Alexis de Tocqueville and, of course, Ronald Reagan.

Any of us could lose the next election at any point.

– Rep. William McClellan “Mac” Thornberry

He is, after all, a true Reagan conservative, devoted to small government and peace through strength. But not a fire-breather, which could hurt him when Republicans pick committee chairs. Thanks to seniority and ties to party leaders, he has the inside track. But if GOP members want an attack dog to go after President Obama, he may not be the man.

Thornberry, however, isn’t worried about the new generation of confrontational tea party types or divides within the party. Erstwhile House Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s loss in the Virginia Republican primary in June to a tea party challenger was shocking but won’t make him change.

“If anything, it has the opposite effect,” he says. “Any of us could lose the next election at any point. There is no such thing as a safe seat anymore. … So you might as well try to make the most out of the time that you’re here.” Carpe diem? “Yeah, exactly.”

For Thornberry, seizing the day means grinding away at government dysfunction. Glamorous? Fun? Not exactly. But, then, neither is Thornberry. And that’s the way he likes it.

This piece was originally published Aug. 6, 2014, and updated as of Dec. 20, 2014.