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Guv tries to guard the Guard

Published August 16, 2006 1:08 am

Bill would give president direct call-up authority
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More than a century before the United States became a nation, state governors began serving as commanders in chief of their militias.

Time for a change?

Someone seems to think so. Language in a defense spending bill - approved by a majority of the U.S. House, including Utah's three members - would allow the president to bypass state governors in calling up National Guard units in the event of a natural disaster or threat to homeland security. In an uncustomary act of solidarity, the nation's governors are imploring Congress to discard the language.

"This legislation is a classic case of expanding federalism that is unwise, unwanted and unneeded," said Mike Mower, spokesman for Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr., one of 51 signatories on a letter from the nation's governors calling the provision "an unprecedented shift in authority."

"This state has worked very well in the past with federal authority in utilizing the National Guard and will continue to work well with them in the future," Mower said.

As such, he said, the provision "simply isn't necessary."

However, some are uncertain how much the provision would change the status quo.

Under current practice, the president typically consults with state governors before calling up the National Guard, but one military historian noted that the president has, in the past, gone around the wishes of a state's governor.

Major Les' Melnyk, a historian in the National Guard Bureau, said the president has federalized troops for domestic emergencies in about 10 cases since World War II.

In half of those instances, Melnyk said, the president - invoking the Insurrection Act - federalized troops against the wishes of the governor in the state from which the soldiers were called.

"He has the legal authority to do so," Melnyk said, "but I would put to you that there are political costs."

Whether the new provision would, in fact, give the president more power, the governors' complaints seem to be taking effect on some members of Congress.

"The governors are expressing a valid concern," said Rep. Chris Cannon, R-Utah, who voted in May along with 396 others to pass the House version of the National Defense Authorization Act, which is thousands of pages long.

The provision that has alarmed Huntsman and his fellow governors does not appear to have been flagged as problematic until it was discovered during a meeting of the National Governors Association in South Carolina earlier this month.

Now having examined the provision, Cannon said, "We need to be looking at ways to 'defederalize' disaster response. This particular provision of the Defense Authorization Act may be leading us in the opposite direction."

It's unclear who ordered the language into the bill.

A spokesman for Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., who sponsored the bill, referred questions to officials at the House Armed Services Committee.

Committee spokesman Josh Holly declined to reveal the member responsible for the language.

But a spokeswoman in the office of Rep. Jim Matheson, D-Utah, gave some indication of the rationale behind the provision.

"It makes sense to adopt changes that would improve the command structure during a crisis, for example if Utah was hit by a major earthquake," Alyson Heyrend said. "The goal would be to get attention and help to folks as quickly as possible."

But Matheson, too, expressed some wariness of the provision.

"At the same time he appreciates and understands there's an aversion with respect to trampling on state's rights," Heyrend said.



Reporter Thomas Burr contributed to this report.




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