The Cable

Berman: Marathon foreign-policy markup was a 'series of tantrums'

The House Foreign Affairs Committee just spent two full days and nights marking up a State Department and foreign operations authorization bill in an effort that the committee's ranking Democrat says was a "waste of time" for a bill that has no chance of becoming law.

"There's no doubt that this was a bad bill as it started, and even though we knew it could get worse, we could not imagine it would get as bad as it did," Rep. Howard Berman (D-CA), said in a Friday interview with The Cable.

Berman said that the original draft of the bill, which included sweeping restrictions on foreign aid to countries around the world, was bad enough. But the over 100 amendments introduced by GOP congressmen sent an even more harmful signal to the world, he said -- namely, that the United States wanted to disengage from international forums and punish countries that don't always agree with the U.S. government.

"The thinking [on the GOP side] is, ‘something happens I don't like, and the way to deal with it is I throw a tantrum.' It's a series of tantrums," Berman said. "It's an absence of a notion between what we're doing and what the consequences of what we're doing are. It's operating from a gut instinct and them not using their heads."

What's more, since the bill has so many provisions and amendments that would undo the Obama administration's foreign policy, it's destined to fail in the Democrat-led Senate, much less be signed by the president.

"This bill's never going to be law. We spent from morning until late night, two straight days and hundreds of hours surrounding that markup, dealing with amendments and language on something that will have no impact on U.S. foreign policy because it will never come close to becoming law," Berman said.

He compared it to his time as a student in the Young Democrats movement in college, when the group would have spirited policy debates and issue resolutions just for the sake of theater and practice. "At the end of the day it was just a piece of paper, and that's what this is," he said.

But unlike the Young Democrats of the 1960s, the HFAC markup in 2011 does have a real and negative effect on U.S. power and influence, Berman said, because those watching the debate assume it has real implications.

"It was a waste of time, but people around the world in other countries and other governments don't know that it's a total waste of time and will never become law and they think this is where U.S. policy is heading and they are going to react," he said.

"So even the act of doing this hurt American interests, because it creates anger and hostility and makes all the things we need to do more difficult."

Berman highlighted an amendment to the bill sponsored by Western Hemisphere subcommittee chairman Connie Mack (R-FL) that would withdraw all U.S. contributions to the Organization of American States, calling it a "very extreme position."

Berman also criticized another amendment that would prohibit assistance to countries that vote against America at the United Nations a majority of the time on any and all votes, pointing out that amendment would prevent the United States from sending aid to Jordan -- despite the fact that Jordan is among the most pro-Western Arab countries and a supporter of Middle East peace.

"Passing an amendment to prohibits any assistance in any country where any government votes against us at the U.N. more than 50 percent of the time... whose interest is that serving?" Berman said. 

The U.N. amendment would also make aid to Pakistan would be impossible because Pakistan would fall into that category. But Berman pointed out that directly contradicted the committee's message when the committee voted39-5 not to cut off all assistance to Pakistan, rejecting an amendment by Rep. Dana Rohrabacher.

"Faced with an opportunity to cut off all economic aid to Pakistan, they rejected it on an overwhelmingly vote. But in three other amendments that the majority supported, they cut off all aid to Pakistan," he said.

The bill also would impose a ban on funding for international organizations that offer abortion counseling to clients, a version of what's known as the Mexico City Policy. Berman called it the "Mexico City Policy on steroids," because it does not allow exemptions for HIV/AIDS funding.

Some of the bill's provisions that Berman thought most counterproductive were more local. For example, the bill would eliminate USAID's new budget office.

"We want a more efficient and focused development assistance, we want better controls, so let's make sure that the agency that's in charge of this can't function," said Berman, characterizing the provision as "going back to the goal of incapacitating USAID."

A spokesman for HFAC Chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL) said she was unavailable for an interview on Friday due to her travel schedule.

AFP/Getty Images

The Cable

Why is Mark Lippert still on the White House payroll?

When the White House published its report of White House staff salaries last month, there was one senior staffer on the list who hasn't actually worked at the White House in almost two years  -- Mark Lippert.

Lippert was listed as receiving $147,500 in 2010 under the title of "deputy assistant to the president and chief of staff for national security operations," according to the disclosure. Lippert was chief of staff at the National Security Council until he left in October 2009 to serve a deployment as a reserve Naval intelligence officer. The chief of staff position was filled in December 2010 by Brooke Anderson.

The widespread speculation at the time was that Lippert, who has been an extremely close advisor to President Barack Obama since his time as a foreign policy aide in Obama's Senate office, left because of a falling out with then National Security Advisor Gen. Jim Jones. Lippert was widely suspected of leaking salacious and damaging stories about Jones, and Jones was reported to have forced Lippert out before eventually stepping down himself for leaking information about the White House to Bob Woodward.

"In July [2009], Jones laid out his case to Obama and others. All seemed to agree that it was rank insubordination. Obama promised to move on Lippert," Woodward wrote in his book Obama's Wars. "On October 1, the day of the McChrystal speech in London, the White House press secretary issued a three-paragraph statement that Lippert was returning to active duty in the Navy. The statement made it sound as though this had been Lippert's choice. ‘I was not surprised,' Obama said in the statement, ‘when he came and told me he had stepped forward for another mobilization, as Mark is passionate about the Navy.'"

So what is Lippert doing now, and why is he still listed on the White House payroll? A White House official told The Cable that Lippert never officially "detached" from the White House and that's why he was never taken out of the human resource system or removed from the payroll.

Three former NSC staffers said that it was commonplace for staffers to keep their White House billets when they deployed overseas with the military and that all federal employees have the option of keeping their federal salaries when deployed, rather than taking what is often a lower military salary.

But Lippert didn't get any pay or benefits from the White House in 2010, the White House official said. So what happened to that money? It remains in White House coffers and was used for various other salaries, events, and travel expenses, according to the official.

Lippert has always enjoyed a special status in the Obama administration. In fact, the entire position of NSC chief of staff was created for him. Before that, the NSC chief of staff was actually the National Security Advisor. But Obama wanted Lippert close by in a powerful position, so the job was invented.

Now that Lippert has finished his deployment to an undisclosed location, the White House is looking for another job for him. For months, he has been expected to replace Gen. Chip Gregson, who left in April, as assistant secretary of defense for Asian and Pacific Affairs. But he hasn't been nominated, partially due to private objections from Sens. John McCain (R-AZ) and Lindsey Graham (R-SC), both of whom had issues with Lippert's skepticism regarding Obama's Afghanistan surge.

We're also told that former Defense Secretary Robert Gates was opposed to Lippert's appointment at the Pentagon and the White House was waiting until Gates was gone. Gates was a staunch defender of Jones and might have held a grudge against Lippert. Also, Gates might have been wary of having someone who is so close to the White House embedded in the Office of the Secretary of Defense, especially one with a history of leaking and insubordination. Republican critics also say he lacks the qualifications for the job of being the Pentagon's top Asia policy official.

"Lippert is a guy who has no experience working in the Pentagon, no qualifications for leading defense policy on East Asia, and who is super close to the White House," said one Bush administration Asia official. "Other than that, he's perfect for the job."

GOP Senate staffers also see a Lippert nomination as a great chance to take the administration to task for what they see as a China policy that has been too conciliatory to Beijing.

"Mark Lippert's nomination to be assistant secretary of defense for Asia would be tremendous hold bait and an opportunity for the Senate to get a hearing on all of the president's China and Taiwan's policies," one senior GOP senate aide said.