Govs may regain sole control over Guard

 
Congress has approved legislation that would strip President Bush of the power to call up National Guard troops during terrorist attacks, natural disasters and other domestic emergencies, returning that authority exclusively to the nation's governors after little more than a year in the commander-in-chief's hands.

A little-noticed provision in last year's National Defense Authorization Act - an annual bill that lays out priorities and expenditures for the Defense Department - gave the president new power to go over governors' heads and activate National Guard troops during stateside crises ranging from hurricanes to health epidemics. The provision came in the form of an amendment to the 200-year-old Insurrection Act, which originally said the president could use the National Guard domestically only to put down rebellions or enforce constitutional rights if states failed to do so. (See related story: Governors lose in power struggle over Guard )

The 2008 Defense Authorization Act - which cleared the U.S. Senate on Friday (Dec. 14) after being approved by the U.S. House of Representatives on Dec. 12 - would repeal the president's expanded authority over the National Guard, leaving governors as sole commanders of the state-run militias during disasters on U.S. soil. The president maintains the right to deploy the Guard to foreign countries during wartime.

Bush is expected to approve the change as part of a much-broader $696 billion military package that includes a number of other key provisions sought by state officials across the country. Among them are plans to elevate the status of the National Guard within the Defense Department - including boosting the rank of the Guard's commanding officer to four-star general - and nationalizing a first-in-the-nation state program in Minnesota to help Guard and Reserve members overcome psychological and other difficulties after returning from war.

None of the changes, however, drew as much attention from all 50 governors as the provision renewing their exclusive authority over the National Guard during domestic disasters, such as this month's flooding in Oregon and Washington state and California 's wildfires in October. All three states mobilized Guard units to help during those crises.

While President Bush has not used his new authority to call up state Guard units during the past year, governors from both parties have argued that states are always better poised than federal authorities to control Guard troops at home.

"It is clear the congressional leadership finally listened to the concerns of governors about the efforts by the president to expand his authority over the National Guard, which would have jeopardized the safety and welfare of our citizens in emergencies," North Carolina Gov. Mike Easley (D) said in a statement on Friday. Easley is a leading spokesman on National Guard affairs for the National Governors Association (NGA), which lobbied for the change and stridently opposed last year's amendment to the Insurrection Act.

State emergency managers and law-enforcement officials across the country also sided with the governors, lending more support to lobbying efforts against presidential authority, said Nolan Jones, deputy director of the NGA's Office of Federal Relations in Washington , D.C.

Jones said partisan politics likely did not play a role in federal lawmakers' reversal this year - despite a turnover of power in last November's elections that handed Democrats control of both houses of Congress.

"There's no politics of that nature in this whole issue," Jones said, stressing the importance of concentrated lobbying efforts from a host of state officials.

Another closely watched provision of this year's Defense Authorization Act would nationalize a Minnesota program that requires all National Guard members in the state to attend a series of three training events after combat deployments - roughly 30, 60 and 90 days after they return from war. (See related story: In Minnesota, soldiers re-learn civilian life )

The program, called Beyond the Yellow Ribbon , forces returning Guard soldiers to meet face-to-face with professional counselors - and one another - to discuss difficulties associated with coming home, from reconnecting with family members to paying bills to finding treatment for any lingering psychological problems such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

In other states, Guard soldiers return from combat and often are thrust back into society without being forced to attend meetings to help them overcome problems associated with long overseas deployments. More than 250,000 Guard members have seen action during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan - some for tours of duty as long as 22 months.

U.S. Rep. John Kline (R-Minn.) introduced the plan to nationalize Minnesota's program. Kline's bill does not require states to copy the program but establishes an office in the Defense Department that would expand the initiative to other states. More than a dozen states already have sent representatives to Minnesota to observe the program, according to National Guard officials in Minnesota .

Kline's plan - backed by Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty (R) and the state's full congressional delegation - calls for $123 million annually in federal funds to be made available to states and for administration of the new office. The plan also would broaden the Beyond the Yellow Ribbon initiative to include members of the Reserves.

Under another change in the Defense Authorization Act, the chief of the National Guard Bureau - the Guard's commanding officer - would become a four-star general instead of a three-star general, elevating his role in the Defense Department. Lt. Gen. Steven Blum, currently the head of the National Guard Bureau, would become the top adviser to Defense Secretary Robert Gates on all Guard issues.

Guard advocates had pushed for making Blum a full member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, but that plan is not included in the Defense Authorization Act.
 
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