Leahy leads effort to return Guard control to state governors

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(Host) Senator Patrick Leahy is leading an effort to return control of individual National Guard units to state governors.

Last year, Congress gave the president the authority to call out Guard units to respond to natural disasters or any other domestic crisis, without gubernatorial approval.

Leahy’s plan to change that provision is strongly supported by Governor Jim Douglas.

VPR’s Bob Kinzel reports:

(Kinzel) Tucked away in the massive 2007 Defense Authorization Act is a provision that makes a dramatic change in the way that National Guard units operate throughout the country.

Before the bill was passed 9 months ago, the governors of individual states had to give their approval before Guard units could be called into service.

But under the new law, the president now has the authority to mobilize the Guard for natural disasters such as floods and hurricanes, to “suppress public disorders” or any other domestic condition that might arise.

Leahy says the law sets a dangerous precedent:

(Leahy) “With the way they changed the law a president could just declare martial law and say basically your state police local police and everybody else don’t count. I’m just going to use the state’s National Guard or worse yet; I’m going to take Vermont’s National Guard because I’m short border guards in Texas along the Mexican border. I think I’ll just bring them down there for a couple of years. Well that makes no sense.”

(Kinzel) Leahy says he’s confident that the Senate will support his plan:

(Leahy) “I don’t know why this administration for the first administration in the nation’s history wanted this power but we’re going to take it away from them.”

(Kinzel) Governor Jim Douglas has raised this issue through the National Governor’s Association since the law was passed last fall. He strongly supports Leahy’s amendment.

(Douglas) “The governor is the person in any state who knows what the situation is on the ground. In that state he or she knows what Guard assets are required for domestic purposes and what kind of response is necessary. It seems very very awkward to have the president from the national capital call out the Guard to tell with a situation within an individual state.”

(Kinzel) Douglas says states also have protocols in place to lend assistance to each other under unusual circumstances:

(Douglas) “I responded to Governor Blanco’s request for help to help stabilize the city of New Orleans after the Katrina disaster a couple of years ago. We’re helping out with some troops along the southwestern border on a rotating basis now so governors are always prepared to help one another.”

(Kinzel) Leahy’s amendment has been included in a Defense Department Authorization bill that’s being debated on the Senate floor all this week.

For VPR News I’m Bob Kinzel in Montpelier.

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