Comptrollers are indispensable. Especially when their organization’s budget surpasses $500 billion annually. By definition, they are behind-the-scenes actors.
But, sometimes, when said bean counter is the comptroller for the United States Department of Defense, he or she is thrust into the political game. That’s just where Bob Hale found himself on Thursday, where he got roughed up testy House Armed Services committee Republicans.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel last Saturday shocked everyone when he announced Obama administration lawyers had interpreted a House GOP-crafted bill to pay military forces during the government shutdown in a way that would allow most DoD civilian employees and some contractors to come back to work.
That did not sit well with HASC Republicans, and Hale happened to be at the witness table on Thursday.
Tactical Air and Land Forces subcommittee Chairman Mike Turner, R-Ohio, a top Barack Obama critic, was on the case of just who inside the administration made the surprising legal interpretation. Here’s the Turner-Hale exchange:
TURNER: I mean, I do want you to get into it, because this is the hearing, and we’re on interpretation. I’d like to know who — not agencies — who told the secretary that he was to interpret this more narrowly than Mr. Taylor and I just discussed, is obviously broader?
HALE: The Department of Justice was the person — or the organization. And we’re not going to discuss the internal discussions…
TURNER: Mr. Hale, this is Congress. We have the ability to ask you the question of who. And you can’t just say some nameless faceless bureaucrat, you know, made the determination of the interpretation of our law. You were in touch with people. Who was it?
HALE: I’m not going to discuss the internal discussions with the secretary of defense, or the secretary of the attorney general.
Conservative HASC member Mike Coffman, R-Colo., was more harsh, charging the Pentagon comptroller with intentionally misinterpreting (violating?) the law:
COFFMAN (excerpted): You went out of your way at every possible turn to make this as ugly as possible, to inflict as much pain as possible on this department.
HALE: I would like the chance to respond. I resent your remarks, and let that — let the record show that. I acted on the advice of attorneys, and our best reading of a loosely-worded law. Did our best.
COFFMAN: Mr. Chairman, if I could…
HALE: And it was not — let me finish, please. It was not a political judgment. We were trying to do what we thought the law said, that is a determination was required. And as I said, I resent your remarks.
That’s tough stuff, another sign of the tensions that are mounting on Capitol Hill as the government shutdown continues with no visible way out yet in sight.
Democrats tried coming to Hale’s defense. One was Rep. Bill Enyart of Illinois. But his rhetorical life vest only made things, well, even more awkward:
ENYART (excerpted): Now you know, some of the questioning that I have heard sounds to me a whole lot like that old law school joke, the question you ask on cross-examination. Well, Mr. Hale, when did you stop beating your wife? Well, you know, Mr. Hale, it’s obvious to me that there is a conspiracy between the Secretary of the Defense and the Attorney General to make it as painful as possible on the civilian employees of the Department of Defense, and isn’t it true, Mr. Hale, that you were involved in that conspiracy?
HALE: Is this the stop beating your wife question?
ENYART: Yes, it is, Mr. Hale.
HALE: I think I’ll pass.
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