Monday, February 15, 1999

Maturity alters
Abercrombie’s view
of military spending

Once a foe of the military,
he now lobbies for
defense funds

By Pete Pichaske
Phillips News Service


WASHINGTON -- As recently as a few years ago, the authors of the authoritative Almanac of American Politics were describing Hawaii Rep. Neil Abercrombie as a Democrat out to dismantle the military. "After awhile, they're going to see there's nowhere to go with all this stuff," he was quoted as saying.

What a difference a few years makes.

Abercrombie is now a senior member of the House Armed Services Committee, the top Democrat on one subcommittee. As such, he spends much of his time lobbying for more money for such things as military construction and a national anti-missile defense system and talking with military commanders.

"I think I know more now," said Abercrombie, asked about his evolution on defense matters. "I've matured. As you get more knowledgeable, you understand issues more."

Recent Clinton administration proposals to spend an additional $112 billion on defense over the next six years and to sink more money into a controversial missile defense system drew howls of protest from the liberal wing of the party, which Abercrombie has long called home.

But Abercrombie did not join the chorus. Instead, he signed on to a bill to make it official U.S. policy to deploy an anti-missile defense to protect the nation.

And he defends the increased spending.

"The majority (of the increase) has to do with readiness issues, personnel issues," he said. "These are the areas that have been cannibalized, put off because of the deployments we've been faced with."

Asked why Democratic colleagues oppose the increase, Abercrombie said: "I haven't had the chance to speak to them."

Defense spending skeptics here were surprised by Abercrombie's support for such military projects as the anti-missile defense system.

"It doesn't fit his history of being reasonable about questionable military expenditures," said Robert Borosage, co-director of the Campaign for America's Future, a liberal think tank here that specializes in economic issues and opposes funding a "Star Wars" type missile defense system.

"He must be looking at the polls. He must think the Korean missile has shaken up Hawaii."

Others are more forgiving

Fellow members of Congress were more forgiving.

Rep. Peter DeFazio, chairman of the Progressive Caucus, who last month denounced increased military spending and estimated that nearly everyone in the caucus would oppose deployment of an anti-missile defense system, said he nonetheless understood Abercrombie's contrary positions.

"We're all subject to the intellectual processes of our districts," said DeFazio, D-Ore., noting Hawaii's large military presence. "If the Progressive Caucus demanded fealty on every issue, they'd have to throw me out."

"It makes sense that someone from Hawaii would have particular concerns" about defense matters, agreed Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., another outspoken House liberal and frequent critic of military spending. "And I don't think he (Abercrombie) is impugning his liberal credentials, no."

Upholding a tradition

To many, Abercrombie is upholding a decades-old Hawaii tradition among lawmakers here -- exemplified most notably by Sen. Daniel Inouye -- of being a liberal on social issues and a conservative on defense issues.

It is a recognition of the strategic and economic importance of the military in Hawaii, and is shared by both Democrats and Republicans.

"In Hawaii, defense spending is our bread and butter," noted Donna Alcantara, chairwoman of the Hawaii Republican Party. "I think Abercrombie quickly realized that when he got to Congress and saw that was the way to go."

Alcantara also suggested Abercrombie's pro-defense talk now is part of a general shift to the right in response to his near-defeat by Republican Orson Swindle in 1996. Or perhaps a desire to broaden his base in preparation for an eventual campaign for the Senate.

"A lot of his people thought he sold out," contended Alcantara. "But as far as we're concerned, he's still extremely liberal ... There's no chance he's going to become a Republican."

No quick rejection

Abercrombie insisted he retains a skepticism about military spending. But he is aware that, unlike some of his Democratic colleagues here, he does not immediately condemn requests for more money.

"In my early days, I probably reacted too immediately," he said. "But I've been in office 25 years. You learn something. I hope I don't do that anymore."

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