#SenateFail: How the Senate May Have Doomed DADT (and the Defense Bill Along With it)

12/13/2010 01:14 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

So how much does this Senate suck?

A lot.

This has definitely been a year of incredible frustration and stagnation in Washington. Without a doubt, it’s the worst I've seen it in my short time working as an advocate on Capitol Hill. But in the last week, the inaction and incompetence in Congress was taken to a whole new level. This Senate is so backwards, so ineffective, so lacking in leadership, it’s almost hard to put it into words. Unless you use a term that comes from the military: FUBAR.

The Senate has been so FUBAR in the lame duck that they failed to make progress on some of the most important, defining, urgent issues facing our nation – within one action-packed, C-Span-dominated, frenzy of partisanship, selfishness and petty posturing. And in the end, our fearful leaders in Washington have not only failed to produce a result on taxes, but also “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell,” The Defense Bill, the New GI Bill and even support for heroes who dug through rubble with their bare hands to save lives at Ground Zero after 9/11. (As a first responder myself, I feel obliged to post the names of the 42 Senators who made sure that support didn’t come through this year.)

If Senator Reid and Senator McConnell don’t turn things around and make tremendous progress in the short weeks left before the end of the year, the legacy of the 111th Congress will be defined by one Twitter hashtag: #SenateFail.

Recently, “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” (DADT) has become a media staple. And with good reason. It’s a subject of historic importance, a defining issue of our time. Activists, politicians and pundits have talked every DADT angle, but they oversimplified the political discussion, leading most Americans to believe that last week Congress was voting yes or no on repealing only this controversial policy. But that wasn’t the case. DADT was actually just one component of a larger, comprehensive annual Defense Bill, the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). NDAA has dozens of other, low profile provisions that will impact our troops and veterans in a profound way. Military Sexual Trauma support. Traumatic Brain Injury screening. Military pay raises. Stop loss back pay. Burn pit investigations. They are all in this massive bill – which also contains DADT.

So as the small group of Senators dug in last week to oppose DADT, they also risked stopping critical funding and support for our troops and veterans. In the midst of two wars, they hunkered down over a policy that has received overwhelming bipartisan and expert support from Bill O’Reilly to Senator Scott Brown to Liz Cheney to Senator Levin to Secretary Gates. And nearly 70% of the American public. Everyone now seems to understand that all men and women who have committed their lives to service and sacrifice in our military should be treated equally. That’s why IAVA took a position two weeks ago. After the groundbreaking Pentagon survey results, almost everyone, no matter what side of the aisle, seemed to get it. But all of America could see that some Senators still didn’t. So the stage was set for a fight. And for yet another soul-crushing, Metrodome-like collapse by the Democrats.

Senator Harry Reid, the former boxer, lost resoundingly. His opponents frustrated him. They made him look silly and weak. Watching Reid falter last week was like watching a boxer lose badly to a guy that telegraphed his punches – and still managed to hit him on the chin time and time again, because he was a vastly superior fighter. Everyone in America knew what the Republican strategy was, and Reid acted like he never saw it coming. All of us tuned in to C-Span winced as we watched him take blow after blow on the Senate floor as the “no” votes rolled in one after another. In the end, Reid and the Democrats didn’t look much better than Josh Koshcheck did Saturday night against Georges St-Pierre. Another shellacking.

Make no mistake, Senator Reid is very much to blame. He’s been calling the shots from the start. He charted a faulty course for DADT that he couldn’t deliver on, pinning it to the broader Defense Bill. He couldn’t rally support (he couldn’t even get Democrat Joe Manchin’s vote). And it was his choice to hastily force a vote on Thursday, failing to let the argument about the importance of NDAA fully unfold, and denying Senator Blanche Lincoln enough time to return from the dentist. Reid’s strategy was flawed, his execution was weak, he didn’t have his troops in line, and at the critical point of attack last week he failed to exercise what the military calls “tactical patience.”

But the cavalry didn’t exactly ride in to save him either. I don’t think anyone can honestly say the President was pushing as hard as he could have to reinforce the NDAA fight last week. He may have been making phone calls behind the scenes, but he didn’t use the best weapon at his disposal: the bully pulpit. He didn’t appear in the media to push for NDAA, he didn’t go on the Sunday talk shows to fight for it, and either he didn’t ask or couldn’t convince Gates and Mullen to be out in front (both were absent from the media all last week while overseas and were understandably frustrated with the lack of progress). So as usual, the Democrats failed to frame and control the debate. They were playing defense (which is their usual position on any military or defense issues). And they looked weak, divided and overcommitted.

Reid and the President wanted START, DREAM, NDAA, DADT, 9/11 first responders support, taxes, and a big bipartisan hug – and they wanted it all this year. And when you try to do everything – especially when your opponent is more disciplined and unified – you often get nothing.

Tying DADT to NDAA was a gamble the Democrats took and lost. As a result, everyone might lose. DADT repeal proponents. The Democrats. The President. And especially our troops. They, their families and the vital support they need in wartime contained within NDAA have become the collateral damage of yet another vicious, partisan, political battle.

Here are just a few of the critical non-DADT provisions in NDAA that haven’t grabbed the headlines—and are now in jeopardy:

Mental Health

  • Our military is facing a chronic shortage of mental health providers. With skyrocketing PTSD and depression diagnoses and suicide rates the highest in decades, the bill will give the Pentagon the funding required to hire more mental health professionals.
  • Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) has become the signature wound of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, with nearly 20% of all returning vets reporting a probable TBI. The Defense Bill will require the DoD to screen every service member from the moment they deploy to long after they come home.

Military Sexual Trauma

  • Over 14% of our force is female, and nearly 250,000 women have served in Iraq or Afghanistan. But sexual assault rules in the Military’s Justice code are outdated and don’t reflect the seriousness of the crimes, nor do they protect the victim. The Defense Bill will modernize the military’s penal code and allow for the creation of a sexual assault reporting hotline.

Military Pay

  • A 1.4-1.9% pay increase for all troops and a range of recruitment and retention bonuses will expire if the bill fails to pass. Every single service member deserves a pay increase.

Health Record Sharing

  • Thousands of service members’ files get lost when they transition from the DoD to VA healthcare systems or when they re-deploy overseas. The agencies are collaborating on a joint electronic lifetime record that follows service members from enlistment to the grave, but privacy regulations prevent this from being seamless. The Defense Bill will ensure that records can freely migrate between DoD and VA, ensuring the highest standard of care for our troops.

Not to mention stop loss repayment extensions, burn pit investigations and much more. Because of the significance of these provisions, all major veterans groups agree that passing the Defense Bill is something that can’t wait until next year—and why The Military Coalition - a group of 33 military, veterans and uniformed services organizations sent a letter to Senator Reid and Senator McConnell to emphasize the urgency.

So if the obstructionists get their way, and Reid and the President fail to galvanize a clear path around them to passage, personal politics and Congressional incompetence will prevent troops from getting the lifesaving support they need from Washington for the first time in 48 years. And that would be an embarrassing precedent to set.

At a time when we have nearly 100,000 troops in Afghanistan, 50,000 in Iraq and over 2 million vets back home, passing this legislation should be a no-brainer for Washington – especially if you see the full picture.

And yes, they’re all to blame – both parties did their part to ensure legislative mutual annihilation. And that is why there is such growing anger at all things Washington and a hunger for independent leaders like Mayor Bloomberg. The American people should not let the politicians get away with pointing fingers all around this time. Everyone did not screw this up equally. Leaders get the credit; leaders deserve the blame. And the American people should not let either party spin us into thinking otherwise.

The President, Senator Majority Leader Reid and Senator McConnell should all be held accountable. If NDAA and all this other critical legislation is not passed before the end of 2010, it won’t be by accident. It’s takes significant effort (or enormous incompetence) to get this little done for this long. And it will indeed be a failure of epic proportions.

So if you’ve never called your Senator before in your life, this would be a good time to start. Tell them to step up and get something – anything – done for the American people. And don’t let them spin you or bury you with finger pointing and excuses. Tell them you don’t care if they want a holiday break. They don’t deserve one.

They should stay until the work is done. Our troops in Iraq and Afghanistan are waiting for this support. Lives literally depend on it. And if our troops can work over the holidays, so can our Senators. If they don’t, their legacy is simple: #SenateFail.