For a freshman House member, navigating the choppy waters of budgetmaking in Congress can be a formidable challenge.
U.S. Rep. Neal Dunn got a quick lesson in steering the ship last month, and was able to come way with a win, although it’s too soon to call it a final victory.
The House on July 27 passed Dunn’s amendment to fast-track needed improvements to the military training range in the eastern Gulf of Mexico, which includes funding the construction of a data collection and monitoring site in Carrabelle, along with fiber connections to Eglin Air Force Base’s existing facility in Gulf County.
Dunn’s amendment to the defense appropriations bill provides $30 million to accelerate the next step of the Gulf Range Enhancement program, a previously approved project to improve test and training data collection on fifth and sixth generation weapons in the Joint Gulf Range Complex.
The amendment was cosponsored by Dunn’s fellow Florida Republican congressmen Francis Rooney, Matt Gaetz and Tom Rooney.
“What Dr. Dunn did is get the first step in the process on the appropriations side, and that’s very, very important,” said Jim Heald, vice-president for InDyne Inc., part of a joint venture with Reliance Test and Technology, the prime contractor that does operation and maintenance for Eglin’s test ranges.
“He absolutely did an amazing job. The House appropriation for defense did not support this project,” said Heald. “He did a lot of behind-the-scenes work to get this money behind the appropriation. Very impressive for a freshman representative.”
Specifically, the House appropriations committee had only made $11 million available for the program in the upcoming fiscal year, with plans to push it out to the following year.
According to an email sent out by Evan B. Lee, Dunn’s legislative director, Dunn met with Rules Committee members around 1 a.m. Tuesday, enlisting the help of Alabama Republican Bradley Byrne to help clear the way through the Rules Committee, which approved the amendment.
Dunn’s next problem was to overcome a barrier put up by the Defense Appropriations Subcommittee, which Lee said had opposed the amendment. "(They) pressed a procedural tactic to render the amendment meaningless," Lee wrote.
“Dr. Dunn arranged an agreement with the full Appropriations Committee Chairman, New Jersey Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen, to quell the subcommittee’s opposition,” he wrote. “This agreement between Dr. Dunn and the appropriations chairman cleared the way for the amendment to come to the floor unadulterated.”
Dunn’s argument has been that lack of adequate instrumentation along Florida’s entire Gulf coast restricts many missions to the northern portion of the range. The 96th Test Wing estimates that 80 missions annually are not conducted because of air space and infrastructure congestion.
“The Gulf Range is a national treasure, a one-of-a-kind resource essential to our national security,” Dunn said, in a news release. “As threats and extremism increase around the world, we should be doing everything in our power to arm our men and women in uniform with rigorous training and state-of-the-art equipment. For that, the military needs a robust Gulf Range. This funding will help to make sure the military has the cutting-edge test and training area it needs.”
The Joint Gulf Range Complex is used for high-altitude, supersonic air combat training for frontline fighters like the F-22 based at Tyndall Air Force Base and the F-35 based at Eglin. The range also enables hypersonic weapons testing, space launch, missile testing, electronic warfare, drone targeting and training, and Naval training missions.
“Tyndall’s importance to our region cannot be overstated. With a strong Gulf Range, we make Tyndall’s mission and personnel strong for the future,” Dunn added.
In addition to the Carrabelle and Gulf County portions of the funding, Dunn’s amendment will also fund improvements to the Gulf Range Drone Control System. By enhancing the utility of the Joint Gulf Range Complex to the military, Dunn said his amendment will strengthen the case for extending the oil and gas moratorium in the Eastern Gulf, set to expire in 2022.
Future stages of the Gulf Range Enhancement program call for improvements down the coast all the way to Key West.
Heald said the next challenge for the funding to hurdle will be in the Senate, where Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson, a member of the Armed Services Committee, is working to get authorization for the same money.
“Just because there’s money available doesn’t mean you are allowed to spend it,” Heald said. “This is a step in the right direction. I’m not sure we can declare victory yet.”
He said the hope is to have a total of $102 million allocated over the next four years for Gulf Range Enhancement.
“The $30 million is the first down payment for the entire project,” Heald said.
“(President) Trump’s budget did not include it. The Air Force had pushed it out to 2019, and we were trying to get it into fiscal year 2018,” he said. “We still have a chance to have it in the Senate side. Sen. Nelson has been quite a supporter up to this point.”