Late last week a federal district court in California struck down the military policy on service by homosexual persons, an activist ruling that, among other things, faulted the 1993 law on constitutional due process grounds. Next week the U.S. Senate is scheduled to take up the legislative repeal of the 1993 law using a process that limits amendments and ignores the expressed preferences of the Secretary of Defense and the Joint Chiefs of Staff, all of whom have asked the Congress to wait for completion of the Defense Department review due on December 1 of this year.
The sequence of events in this truncated debate leaves the U.S. Senate preparing to legislate in the dark next week. It began last January, when President Obama exhorted Congress in his State of the Union Address to repeal the policy that has come to be known by the misleading name “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” In subsequent testimony to Congress, both Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and Joint Chiefs Chairman Admiral Michael Mullen announced the Pentagon review and testified that they personally favored repeal of the prohibition on military service by homosexual persons. Both men, however, indicated that their statements did not represent the views of the individual service chiefs, all of whom—General James Conway (Marine Corps), General Norton Schwartz (Air Force), Admiral Gary Roughead (Navy), and General George Casey (Army)—weighed in that they opposed congressional action to repeal the law before the completion of the planned review.
In late April, Secretary Gates and Admiral Mullen sent a letter to House Armed Services Committee Chairman Ike Skelton (D–MO) telling him “in the strongest possible terms” that they opposed congressional repeal of the law, 10 USC Sec. 654, before the Department had had “the opportunity to conduct a thorough, objective, and systematic assessment of the impact of such a policy change.” Ignoring this advice and bypassing the House Armed Services Committee altogether, the full House voted in May to repeal the law, subject to a timetable involving receipt of the review by the Secretary of Defense on December 1 and follow-on certifications by President Obama, the Secretary of Defense, and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs.
An amendment to the same effect passed the Senate Armed Services Committee on the same day that the repeal bill passed the full House. The Senate bill will reportedly go to the Senate floor under a rule that allows limited amendments either to the repeal language or a separate controversial amendment that would open U.S. military medical facilities for the performance of elective abortions.
Proceeding against the wishes of the nation’s military leaders, and with little or no opportunity for amendments, is no way to run a railroad, much less the nation’s armed forces. As Senator John McCain (R–AZ) notes, the Defense Authorization bill is not the place to be “moving forward with a social agenda on legislation that was intended to ensure this nation’s security.” The “cooling saucer” of the Senate is transformed into an overloaded hotplate.
Worst of all, a headlong rush on “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” in the Senate would, as Secretary Gates and Admiral Mullen said last April, “send a very damaging message to our men and women in uniform that in essence their views, concerns and perspectives do not matter.” There is never a right time to send such a message.