House to Obama: Guantanamo Should Stay Open
For lawmakers in the House of Representatives who have been working on the 2015 National Defense Authorization bill for months, May 22, 2014 was a day of celebration and a big sigh of relief. On this day, the full House overwhelmingly passed the defense policy bill by a resounding 325-98 vote—a voting margin that is becoming less and less common on foreign and defense policy issues in the U.S. Congress, given Washington’s hyper-partisan atmosphere.
Howard “Buck” McKeon (R- CA), the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, had a special reason to be happy. It is his committee, after all, that’s tasked with setting the policies, authorities, and procedures that allow the Pentagon to operate ever year.
“For the 53rd consecutive year,” McKeon wrote in a press release, “Republicans and Democrats have come together to pass the legislation that provides vital authorities and resources for our men and women in uniform. This is solid legislation, built after many long months of intensive oversight work.”
Many others, however, weren’t as jubilant with the outcome—particularly those, like Rep Adam Smith (D – WA), the ranking member of the Armed Services Committee, who has been trying to provide President Barack Obama with the authority to close the Guantanamo Bay terrorist detention facility once and for all. Indeed, Smith has been one of the most active members in the House on Guantanamo-related issues, viewing the facility as a waste of taxpayer money, a blemish on America’s international image, and a vivid reminder to the world of a period in U.S. history that was often defined by endless confrontation, war on two fronts, indefinite detention, and an executive branch determined to expand the meaning of Article II power.
Before introducing his amendment to the floor, which would have provided the Defense Department with the money to transfer Guantanamo prisoners to U.S. facilities for trial or continued incarceration, Smith echoed what the biggest proponents for Gitmo’s closure have been saying all along:
“As the number of detainees held at the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, continues to shrink, the cost to taxpayers will only continue to grow. This growing cost, coupled with the ongoing damage to our national security and moral standing in the world, underscores the necessity to close this international eyesore.”
Yet despite a vocal pledge of support from the White House on Smith’s efforts, the amendment failed to gain enough traction on the House floor to actually become a part of the bill (it was eventually defeated 247-177). Indeed, the amendment not only failed to pass, but may have had the inadvertent affect of allowing those totally opposed to shutting down the prison the opportunity to demonstrate that they still hold the majority view in the House on the Gitmo issue. Just as the House passed similar restrictions on the transfer of Gitmo detainees during last year’s NDAA markup, Republicans and hawkish Democrats were able to block any money from being spent on emptying prisoners, transporting them to the United States, and housing them on U.S. soil.
For President Obama, who has repeatedly said that shuttering the Guantanamo detention center is a top priority of his administration, the House version of the NDAA is the latest in a series of political defeats on the Gitmo file. But more importantly, the House vote is another indication, twelve years after the Guantanamo prison first opened, that shutting its doors is still a hot-bottom political issue that is best to be avoided in an election year.
If the House of Representatives has its way, Guantanamo will remain a fixture in the American psyche for the foreseeable future.