Courtney takes helm of panel with Navy oversight

Connecticut will be well represented on a powerful U.S. House subcommittee with oversight over a broad range of Navy and Marine Corps programs, including submarine construction.

U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney, D-2nd District, officially was selected Wednesday to chair the Seapower and Projection Forces Subcommittee of the House Armed Services Committee, which he has served on since 2007. He was the so-called ranking member, or second in charge, from 2015 through 2018.

Courtney was considered a shoo-in for the job, given his tenure on the committee and Democrats' new control of the House. He is the first U.S. House lawmaker from Connecticut to chair a subcommittee with oversight of the Navy since 1873, according to the House historian's office. The state ranks fourth in private-sector jobs related to the shipbuilding and repair industry, according to a 2015 study from the U.S. Maritime Administration.

Courtney said by phone Wednesday afternoon that he'll continue the inclusive and bipartisan work of the subcommittee, which on the Democratic side includes five members who served in the sea services.

"It's a historic time for seapower," Courtney said. "I'm very excited to be given this honor to help direct policy."

U.S. military strategy increasingly is turning to the seas as Russia and China build up their undersea fleets.

"There's no question that our sea service mission has gone up in the priority of the country, particularly as the land wars are drawn down," Courtney said.

As chair, Courtney, whose district includes submarine builder Electric Boat, will have a crucial role in setting the agenda of the subcommittee, including prioritizing Connecticut's defense industry. He's taken the chairmanship at a time when there's likely to be fierce debate over military spending.

President Donald Trump has talked about cutting the 2020 defense budget. Usually presidents present their budget proposals by early February, but Trump's proposal will be delayed due to the partial government shutdown, which began Dec. 22.

Courtney said he is hearing that Trump's budget will be delayed by five weeks. He said it's hard at this point to predict the level of funding Trump will request for the Pentagon, and the Navy, specifically, but he expects continued support for an estimated $128 billion submarine program to build a new class of ballistic-missile submarines. That will impinge on the Navy's shipbuilding budget, setting lawmakers up for a fight over their priorities.

Courtney will be in a good position to push for the production of additional submarines, including building three attack submarines in some years, as opposed to two. He said he'll be watching closely to see if Trump's 2020 budget includes funding for the additional submarines, which Congress authorized through legislation last year.

"My sense is that adding new money into the budget after it comes over from the White House is going to be an uphill battle," he said.

Courtney has long advocated for the Navy to award more submarine repair work to private shipyards like EB, as opposed to public yards, and is planning to continue that push as chair. Top military officials have complained to Congress about attack submarines being sidelined by maintenance delays at the public yards, which are backed up, at a time when they say they need the subs to carry out their missions.

j.bergman@theday.com

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